After putting away No. 20 Clemson by a score of 85-50 on Jan. 16, expectations were high for No. 13 Virginia coming into their game against Georgia Tech on Saturday. Instead, the Cavaliers (10-2, 6-0 ACC) ended up in a slugfest against the surprisingly solid Yellow Jackets (7-4, 3-2 ACC) and managed to escape with an incredibly narrow 64-62 victory.
Although Georgia Tech was not a slouch by any means — boasting five straight wins leading up to their bout against Virginia — the Cavaliers showed resilience by being able to weather the storm while trailing for long stretches. Looking back to their last loss, a 98-75 rout against No. 1 Gonzaga on Dec. 26, this Virginia team is beginning to look completely different from the one many saw at the beginning of the season — one that is mature on both sides of the ball and effective in crunch time.
On the opposing side, Syracuse is coming off of a resounding 78-60 victory against a ranked ACC foe in No. 16 Virginia Tech. Despite the Orange (9-4, 3-3 ACC) holding a couple of questionable losses on their record this year, including losses to an underwhelming North Carolina squad and a sweep by Pittsburgh, Syracuse will pose a formidable threat to Virginia.
A focal point going into the game will be the clash of two of the most famed minds in college basketball, Coach Tony Bennett and Coach Jim Boeheim.
Bennett is in his 12th year at the helm of Virginia basketball and recently led the program to its first ever national championship in 2019. Boeheim, on the other hand, has been the leading man in Syracuse since 1976 and holds a resume that boasts 34 NCAA Tournament appearances — one of which ended in a championship win in 2003 on the shoulders of now NBA star Carmelo Anthony.
Of note, last season, the Cavaliers and the Orange split their pair of match-ups. Virginia got the better of Syracuse in the Orange’s home opener, 48-34 in November 2019 but then fell to the Orange 63-55 in early January 2020.
Are the Cavaliers “pretenders” or “contenders” for another national championship?
Being undefeated in the ACC, consistently ranking in the top-20 teams in the nation and holding a six-game winning streak are the makings of a legitimate contender looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament. However, there will always be doubters regardless of which way momentum is heading and Virginia basketball is no exception to this.
There are still lingering whispers regarding how good the Cavaliers can be on the national stage due to their early losses this season to Gonzaga and San Francisco. Additionally, some critics continue to question whether the many new faces added to Virginia this year — such as senior forward Sam Hauser, junior guard Trey Murphy III and freshman guard Reece Beekman — can continue to gel together and play like a cohesive unit.
Many would argue that these questions have been answered now at the midpoint of the regular season after the incredible chemistry the Cavaliers displayed against recent opponents Notre Dame, Clemson and Georgia Tech. Newcomers to the team have also demonstrated their nailing down of Bennett’s pack-line defense — holding all but one opponent under 70 points.
In spite of all of this, Virginia will have yet another opportunity to silence doubters against the Orange. Syracuse proved to be a very capable team that may have just hit their stride after routing the Hokies and are positioned to be in the mix among NCAA tournament-contending ACC teams.
Can Syracuse find consistency and climb the ACC ranks?
After starting the season with an undefeated 3-0 record, the Orange have been up and down throughout ACC and Big Ten play. While having only lost one game at home thus far, Syracuse has only won a single road game.
Additionally, up until last Saturday, the Orange had failed to knock off any of their credible opponents, losing twice to Pittsburgh and once to North Carolina. However, the team managed to put a dent in this narrative by blowing out Virginia Tech by 18 points and taking apart Miami by a score of 83-57 in the game prior.
Currently sitting at eighth in the ACC standings, a win against top-ranked Virginia would be huge in propelling Syracuse up the conference ranks. A third consecutive win would also bode well for the Orange in terms of proving to be consistent ahead of a difficult upcoming schedule.
Players to Watch
Virginia senior forward Sam Hauser
Hauser’s arrival to Virginia has been as advertised with the Marquette transfer leading the Cavaliers with a 14.5 points per game average. Hauser additionally leads Virginia in rebounding, averaging 7.4 boards through the first 12 games of the season.
In the Cavaliers’ most recent game against Georgia Tech, Hauser found his stroke from beyond the arc, making four of his five attempts from three-point range. Hauser went nine-of-12 from the floor, showing off his lethal shooting ability in a 22-point effort.
The senior forward posted the same exact shooting numbers from the three-point line in Virginia’s demolition of Clemson as well. Standing at 6-foot-8 and 218 pounds, Hauser may pose a match-up nightmare for the Orange all night long.
With his efficient shooting and ball handling skills in the post, look out for Hauser to have yet another big game.
Syracuse sophomore forward Quincy Guerrier
A large deal of credit in Syracuse’s two-game winning streak is due to Guerrier’s contributions. Against the Hokies, Guerrier led the Orange with 20 points and nine rebounds, a near double-double performance.
Guerrier also showed up and showed out in the previous game against Miami where the sophomore forward connected on eight of his 10 field goal attempts and scored 18 points while pulling down 8 rebounds. Similar to Hauser, Guerrier leads his team in both scoring and rebounding this season, currently ringing in at 16.9 points per game and 9.6 rebounds per game.
For Virginia, it will be absolutely critical to contain Guerrier in order to limit scoring by the Orange. By keeping Guerrier in check, Virginia will be able to force Syracuse to turn to their second or even third options for scoring points on offense.
Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN.