Virginia opened the season with a 48-34 win against Syracuse.
At the time, it seemed clear the Cavaliers (11-3, 3-1 ACC) would be a defensive team, but the extent of the team’s offensive and defensive disparity was unknown.
Through 14 games, Virginia’s offense remains its weakness, while its defense holds the distinction of being the nation’s most efficient.
“They are very difficult to play against,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said after the season-opening loss. “They’re in the top two or three defensive teams every year. You don’t want to play them in the first game.”
Boeheim was right. Playing Virginia in the first game is a tremendous challenge, and the Orange only scrambled together 34 points on opening night. Since then, Syracuse (8-7, 1-3 ACC) has climbed to No. 36 nationally in offensive efficiency. The Orange have scored more than 80 points five times since the opener, and they have two 97-point games.
Three Syracuse players average at least 11.9 points per game, and all three of those players shoot at least 33.3% from 3-point range. Elijah Hughes and Buddy Boeheim both shoot over 40% from beyond the arc. The Orange have talented offensive weapons who have performed well since a poor showing on opening night.
Despite improved offensive efficiency, beating quality teams remains a problem for Syracuse. According to KenPom’s rankings as of Jan. 10, Boeheim’s squad is 0-7 against teams in the top 75, but 8-0 against teams outside the top 75. Virginia slides in at No. 36.
On the bright side for Syracuse, two of Virginia’s three losses are to teams outside the KenPom top 100. The Cavaliers are beatable, as was evident by their 60-53 loss to a depleted Boston College team earlier this week.
“We gotta look back at the tape, but definitely coming out slow didn’t help,” Virginia guard Kihei Clark said after the defeat.
Clark’s point is an accurate one. The Cavaliers are a perfect 11-0 when leading at halftime and 0-3 when trailing at the break. Virginia’s lack of offense makes coming back from a halftime deficit challenging, which puts even more pressure on the Cavaliers to start fast.
UVA currently ranks 206th nationally in offensive efficiency, which would be the worst mark of any team in Tony Bennett’s head coaching career. Virginia also ranked 346th out of 353 Division I men’s college basketball teams in 3-point shooting percentage coming into Friday. The seven teams with worse percentages are 25-78 overall this season.
Despite subpar offensive play, the Cavaliers still lead the nation in defensive efficiency. They’re an elite defensive team, which is why they’re 11-3 and 3-1 in the ACC. A great defense doesn’t mean they’re immune to a few shaky performances, though. In all three games in which they’ve allowed at least 60 points, the Cavaliers have lost.
Boston College was without its leading scorer, but the Eagles still conjured together 60 points to beat the Cavaliers, who struggled to score.
“At times, if it’s not going well, you got to have your defense hold you and your effort has to be at a high level,” Bennett said. “It seemed like we were hot and cold.”
Virginia wins with defense. That formula worked against Syracuse the first time around, but the Orange are a better offensive team than they were two months ago. Despite poor showings against the best teams in college basketball, Jim Boeheim’s squad poses a challenge for the Cavaliers.
If the loss to Boston College proves anything, it’s that every ACC game requires high intensity and great defense for Virginia to win.
That won’t change Saturday.