SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Last season’s Virginia men’s basketball team featured beautiful passing and textbook 3-point shooting strokes. The offensive rhythm of the 2018-19 Virginia Cavaliers was a sight to behold.
Wednesday’s season-opening 48-34 win over Syracuse may have forced fans of offensive basketball to change the channel away from the ACC Network. Comcast customers who love high-scoring basketball games lucked out. For fans that love defensive basketball, Virginia’s win was a thing of beauty.
The Cavaliers (1-0, 1-0 ACC) held Syracuse to its fewest points in a game since it scored just 28 in a loss to Sampson Navy in 1945. No group of fans had ever attended a game at the Carrier Dome and seen the Orange score as few points as they did Wednesday night.
It was a defensive clinic.
“We played Syracuse in a tight one today, couldn’t buy a shot,” Virginia’s Braxton Key said. “It shows our defense just had to be that much better. We came out today, and I think we made a statement not just to ourselves but [also] the country.”
Virginia is accustomed to stifling opposing offenses under Tony Bennett. The Cavaliers held Georgia Tech to 28 points on Jan. 22, 2015. The Cavaliers held Wake Forest to a mere 34 points in February of that season. Bennett’s squads tend to be defensive juggernauts.
While college basketball fans may not gravitate to Bennett’s system like they do Roy Williams’ fast-paced, high-scoring North Carolina team, Bennett and the Cavaliers are every bit as lethal.
Since 2013-14, Virginia is 90-19 in ACC games. They’ve held foes to 50 points or fewer in 36 of those games. That’s roughly every one out of three games that UVa limits opponents to 50 points or fewer. UVa’s ability to keep teams under 50 points is astounding, and this year’s team will likely take on that defensive-minded identity a little more than last season’s team.
“We play really good collective defense,” Virginia forward Jay Huff said. “We’ve been scrambling really well in practice the past few days, challenging shots. I think this team is probably underestimated.”
A defensive identity doesn’t mean the Cavaliers, who shot 4-of-25 from 3-point land, won’t find an offensive rhythm moving forward. Playing Syracuse’s 2-3 zone isn’t an accurate representation of what this UVa offense can become. The Orange excels at their defensive system and few teams use defensive sets as unique as the Syracuse zone.
“It’s different,” Key said. “I mean, all summer we’re going against our pack and going against man.”
Key did say the extra time before the season opener helped the team prepare for the zone. Normally, the team only has a few days instead of a few weeks to begin preparation for the zone. That practice paid off in the post for the Cavaliers, who shot 16-of-24 on 2-point shot attempts.
As the season progresses, Virginia hopes to improve offensively and find more production from its guards. Kihei Clark, Casey Morsell and Tomas Woldetensae scored 13 combined points and went 4-of-19 from the floor.
Even with inconsistent scoring from the guards, Virginia beat Syracuse on the road by 14. The team’s defense allows it to develop young players on the offensive end without suffering in the loss column. If Virginia’s young guards can find a rhythm prior to the meat of the ACC schedule, the Cavaliers will be a tough out given their defensive strength.
UVa fans shouldn’t expect 3-point shooting displays like they got from last year’s squad. Kyle Guy nailed eight shots from beyond the arc in the team’s win at Syracuse last season, and the Cavaliers only made four shots from the 3-point line Wednesday night. It’s not a team designed to win by shooting the lights out.
This Virginia team is a different team than last year’s and it’s crafting a different identity. The Cavaliers are still learning who they’ll be this season, but one thing is clear: Defense will lead the way.