MESSIER: Virginia is the team to beat, that’s a good thing
As the clock wound down on what would be the Cavaliers’ second consecutive loss to Syracuse Saturday afternoon in the Carrier Dome, it was hard not to think about last year when Virginia’s Final Four hopes were extinguished.
The game was eerily reminiscent of last years’ loss in the tournament. Last season in Chicago, the Orange rallied back after a 16-point second half deficit and beat Virginia 68-62. Saturday, Syracuse trailed by 12 at halftime and rallied to win 66-62.
The Orange also made a similar adjustment to the tournament — spreading the floor and giving a freshman the chance to shine and tally 23 points. Last year it was guard Malachi Richardson, and this year, freshman guard Tyus Battle.
In the end, even after reaching the Final Four last year, extending their ACC win streak to four in a row and beating their second ranked opponent in eight days, Syracuse fans stormed the Carrier Dome court.
They did so because Virginia has evidently found their Achilles heel in the Orange — although the Cavaliers have become the team to beat.
In each of Virginia’s five losses this season, it has taken impressive efforts by the teams that have taken them down. Syracuse, the most recent example, managed to shoot 14 of 19 for an overall percentage of 73.7 in the second half — a number that is incredibly hard to come by in college basketball.
The Orange also forced the Cavaliers — who came into the game ranked No. 2 in the nation for turnovers per game with 9.6 per game — to commit 15 turnovers, one off their season high.
Virginia’s third highest number of turnovers on the season came in their home loss to now No. 7 West Virginia. The Mountaineers were able to use their “Press Virginia” system in order to hand the Cavaliers their first loss at John Paul Jones Arena in 24 games. West Virginia coach Bob Huggins stressed how difficult it was to trip up Virginia in his postgame press conference.
“You can’t try to steal it and not get it. You can’t reach,” Huggins said. “You have got to keep them from doing what they want to do and that’s hard because they are really good at it.”
Even then, the Mountaineers accomplished a feat that very few conference opponents have been able to reach in the past few years — a victory on Virginia’s home court. Only one other opponent was able to do so this season, and that was now No.15 Florida State.
Once again, it took a remarkable game from the Seminoles in order to earn a slim 60-58 victory over the Cavaliers. Sophomore guard Dwayne Bacon, a highly touted NBA prospect, scored a career high 29 points at JPJ to stun Virginia. While Bacon scored the eventual game winner for Florida State, the sophomore has yet to crack 20 points in his following eight games. Not to mention, the Seminoles forced Virginia to commit 13 turnovers — another rare statistic.
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton echoed some of Huggins’ feelings about the difficulty of preparing for the Cavaliers.
“Virginia is one of the more difficult teams for us to prepare for because they are so disciplined, they do such a great job of executing their offense, they take certain things away from you on the defensive end and they just about controlled the game by taking certain things away from us on the offensive end,” Hamilton said.
The one anomaly in the Cavaliers’ losses this season came at the hands of Pittsburgh, who has lost every game since defeating Virginia. The Panthers surely gave the Cavaliers their best of the season — making 61.9 percent of their three point shots and shooting 54 percent from the floor overall.
Although another loss to Syracuse comes as a disappointment for Virginia fans, it’s evident that when teams come to play the Cavaliers, they give them their best. As upsetting as it is to see an opposing team’s fans storm their home court after a loss, it means that teams look forward to the chance to beat Virginia.
Another conference foe will be eager to pick up a win against the Cavaliers when No 6. Louisville comes to Charlottesville Monday. Ironically, the Cardinals have been equally challenged by the Cavaliers as the Cavaliers have been challenged by the Orange, and Virginia was even labeled as Louisville’s newest great nemesis. Virginia beat Louisville earlier this season when they traveled to Kentucky, but it won’t be the last time a team will be hungry to take down the Cavaliers this season.
And to that I say — good luck.