The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team is set to take on the No. 2-ranked Virginia Cavaliers tonight in what will be the final men’s basketball game in the Carrier Dome this season. For those of you don’t already know, Carolina Darney pretty much knows all things Virginia. She came up through our sister site Streaking The Lawn and now holds a multitude of responsibilities at SB Nation, which includes keeping us in line here at Nunes.
She’s also a pretty good sport when it comes to the whole Malachi three goggles thing and Virginia’s tendency to blow double-digit leads against Syracuse. So, naturally we brought her on board for a few questions. Said questions are below, with some answers from Caroline.
TNIAAM: How do you feel about Malachi Richardson?
Caroline Darney: Who? Never heard of him.
TNIAAM: Okay, as for this Virginia team, the Cavaliers are No. 1 in Ken Pom and widely considered as the overall No. 1 seed. Why has Virginia been so dominant this year?
CD: This Virginia squad is obviously good on defense, because, duh. This year’s team, however, is offensively gifted to go along with the strong defense. Virginia currently ranks No. 2 on defense and No. 4 on offense per KenPom, and the offensive efficiency is better than the 2016 squad that some would say has been Bennett’s best (YEAH, YEAH, YEAH, WE KNOW).
The biggest thing, though? Virginia has bonafide stars with a strong supporting cast. There are so many different lineups with so many different benefits, and this team just has no quit.
TNIAAM: We’re all familiar with the pack-line at this point, but this team is so efficient on offense. Why is Virginia markedly better this season?
CD: The biggest difference this year is the versatility on the offense, whether that’s scheme or pieces. They’ve run different variations on offense with the Mover-Blocker, Continuous Ball Screens, and some Triangle. Guys like Jay Huff and Kihei Clark allow the offense to do different things (more pick and roll, run Ty Jerome off ball).
The “Big Three” of De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy, and Ty Jerome provide consistent scoring options. Virginia is shooting 40% from three this season (good for 5th in the country and best in the ACC), with Hunter (49%), Guy (43%), and Jerome (40%) all hitting that 40% mark in ACC play (Huff is at 43%, but has only taken 13).
If those threes aren’t falling, however, these Hoos have other plans. In the first matchup against Duke, Virginia went 2-for-17 from three, but went (nearly) toe-to-toe with the Blue Devils with 42 points in the paint. When shots weren’t falling against Louisville, Virginia created inside.
TNIAAM: Virginia’s only two losses came to Duke. What happened in each of those games?
CD: In the first one, Virginia couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn from three (2-for-17, 18%). In the second, Duke couldn’t miss (13-for-21, 62%). It’s really not that much more complicated that that, in my opinion. Sure, Duke is fantastically talented and Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett are nearly unstoppable. When they also add Cam Reddish going 5-for-8 from three...well shucks.
I liked the answer Virginia had in the first game. They didn’t continue to try and chuck up threes and instead worked the ball inside. In the second, it was honestly impressive to stay within 8-10 points all game with the way Duke was shooting. Duke’s next best performance from three was a 10-for-19 day (53%) against Notre Dame. Only one other time in conference play have they cracked 40%.
The Hoos had eight TOs in the first game, 14 in the second. Clean that up, make some threes, make them miss some threes, and I think it’s a better outcome for Virginia.
TNIAAM: What makes Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome so good? Best backcourt in the ACC?
CD: I may be biased, but yes, hands down the best backcourt in the ACC. Guy and Jerome are averaging 15.1 and 13 points per game, respectively, and are just so talented. What’s been impressive is the improvement on other things than just scoring (which is definitely an improvement). As mentioned, they’re both shooting well from beyond the arc, but Guy is averaging 4.6 rebounds per game while Jerome is dishing 5.5 assists per game (with an A/TO ratio of 3.2, just behind Tre Jones).
Even when they’re not connecting from deep (see Louisville), there’s huge contributions on both ends of the court.
TNIAAM: De’Andre Hunter has been remarkable all season. What does he do well, and maybe more fittingly, what doesn’t he do well?
CD: Pick up a second first half foul and have to sit? That’s about it. He’s just...so damn good. Hunter is averaging 15.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, has an eFG% of 60%, and shoots 46% beyond the arc. He gets to the line (draws 4.5 fouls per game), and converts at an 80% clip when he gets there.
It’s been so fun to really see him blossom as the season has gone on. He’s so smooth offensively, but he’s not a me-first player. Defensively, he can guard just about anyone on the court (maybe Chukwu is a mis-match), but makes lives miserable game in and game out.
Against Cuse, he’s a guy that can thrive at the center of the zone. Sometimes he can get a little soft with his passes from the wings to the top of the arc, but that’s my only complaint if we’re being honest. Kid is just damn good.
TNIAAM: I really like Jay Huff. What’s his story?
CD: Jay “the Hoonicorn” Huff. He’s awesome. Huff came in with the class that included Hunter, Guy, and Jerome, but redshirted with Hunter. He’s a legit 7-footer with a smooth stroke. Last season and early this season, his defense kept him off the court a lot as he continued to improve in the Pack Line. Now that he’s more comfortable, he’s seeing the court more and that means (mostly) all good stuff for Huff.
Unlike Salt, Huff is a legit offensive threat that can hit from three (9-for-20, 45% on the season), so you have to close out on him. If you close out too hard, though, he’ll duck under you and take it in for a dunk. Around the rim he’s outstanding with tip-ins and put-backs, and is a favorite for alley-oops.
Most folks don’t know this, but he also missed the UMBC game (along with Hunter) due to a shoulder injury sustained just before the game. He’s becoming stronger as the season goes, and his improvement is clear).
TNIAAM: Does anyone set a better screen than Jack Salt though?
CD: The answer is unequivocally no. His role has decreased a little down this back stretch of ACC play as he battles a bit of a back injury, and as Braxton Key, Mamadi Diakite, and Jay Huff really start blossoming on both ends of the court. He’s Virginia’s lone senior (in this case a fifth-year) and he’s the guy that will do whatever the team needs, no questions asked.
TNIAAM: What roles do Braxton Key and Mamadi Diakite play?
CD: Huge ones. Key is a rebounding machine, leading the team with 5.7 rebound per game and a defensive rebounding percentage of 23.2. Key has struggled offensively, particularly from three, but he’s a great spark and offers versatility on offense when in with Hunter. On defense, he’s really rounding into form in the Pack Line. He’s got 15 steals and 13 blocks in conference play, which I’m here for.
Mamadi, oh Mamadi. My sweet, golden haired big man. Diakite has been a revelation this season. He’s averaging 7.7 points and 4.8 rebounds in conference play to go with 33 (!!!) blocks (2.1 per game...good for third in the ACC and ahead of some guy named Zion Williamson, who is fifth). Like Huff, Diakite is a threat on offense and should be considered Virginia’s best big man. He’s a versatile player. My one beef is he can be a “shoot-first” player, but normally he makes good choices.
TNIAAM: How can we expect Virginia to attack the 2-3 zone?
CD: Option 1: shoot over it with Guy and Jerome and Hunter.
Option 1A: feed it to Hunter at the free throw line and let him do stuff.
Option 2: move a bunch and try and get good ball movement to find a big for an easy dunk.
Easy peasy, right? Hahah.
TNIAAM: If Virginia gets up double digits at halftime do you feel safe?
CD: Haha, this year, sure. No lead is ever safe in the ACC (lol, hi, Louisville), but as I’ve said before, this isn’t your grandma’s Virginia team.
[cue Virginia blowing a halftime lead]
TNIAAM: Who wins, what’s the final score and why?
CD: It’s hard to pick against Virginia right now, so I’m going to say 68-58 Hoos. It’ll be close-ish (within 5-7 points for most of the game) before Virginia pulls away.
Thanks, Caroline! See you down in Charlotte next week.
For everyone else, be sure to head over to STL for our Q&A as well.