Wahoo Preview: No. 11 Virginia vs. Syracuse

By Scott Ratcliffe

Kihei Clark (Photo by Jon Golden)

The 11th-ranked Virginia men’s basketball team hosts Syracuse at 5 p.m. Saturday in what could be a very memorable day at John Paul Jones Arena, as Tony Bennett sits one win shy of becoming the program’s all-time wins leader.

Bennett’s Cavaliers (10-3, 2-2 ACC) were in good shape to help him achieve that feat on Tuesday in Pittsburgh, but a second-half collapse by the Wahoos, who gave up 45 points after halftime, led to a three-point loss to the first-place Panthers.

As a result, Bennett remained tied with UVA coaching legend Terry Holland for most wins in Cavalier history with 326, and now has a chance to pass him in front of the home crowd on Saturday. On paper at least, the odds are certainly in Virginia’s favor to make it a reality.

The Orange (10-5, 3-1) are coming off of a one-point win at Louisville earlier in the week against a struggling Cardinal team that has only won twice all season. Jim Boeheim’s squad checked in at 92nd overall in Friday’s KenPom ratings (78th AdjO; 118th AdjD) and 142nd in the NET rankings. UVA, conversely, is ranked 12th and 18th, respectively.

Things didn’t start out too great, as Syracuse lost two home games to non-conference opponents in November (against Colgate and Bryant) before getting blown out by Illinois, 73-44, in the final ACC-Big Ten Challenge. The Orange recovered in December, winning their first five games of the month before coming up short against Pitt, 84-82, on the 20th.

Senior sharpshooter Joseph Girard III leads Syracuse with an average of 16.7 points per game, as he’s knocked down a team-high 44 3-pointers on the season. Their point guard, Judah Mintz, averages 15.8 points and leads the Orange in both assists (4.2 apg) and steals (ACC-best 2.3 spg) as a true freshman.

Center Jesse Edwards, a 6-foot-11 senior, is a force on both ends of the floor, averaging a double-double with 13.9 points and 10.9 rebounds per game (second in the conference), while also leading the ACC with 3.1 blocks per game.

Benny Williams, a 6-8 sophomore forward, is averaging 8.0 points and 4.7 rebounds a night, while a trio of freshmen — Chris Bell (6.7 ppg), Justin Taylor (4.4 ppg) and Maliq Brown (3.8 ppg) — continue to get their feet wet at the college level.

It will be a homecoming affair Saturday for both Taylor, a 6-6 Charlottesville native who attended St. Anne’s-Belfield, and Brown, a 6-8 native of Culpeper who graduated from Blue Ridge School in Albemarle County.

The Orange lead the ACC in blocked shots  with 5.9 per game, and are third in steals with 8.2 a night.

Virginia has defeated Syracuse nine times in the 11 ACC meetings since the Orange joined the league in 2013, including winning four of the six contests at JPJ. UVA has claimed victory in each of the last three games against Syracuse, as the Hoos escaped the Dome with a five-point win in the previous meeting last January.

The Cavaliers opened as an 11.5-point favorite to make it four in a row, according to Caesars Sportsbook. Saturday’s game will be televised on the ACC Network.