- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 27, 2016

CHICAGO — What’s strange now, is that Virginia appears to be the ascending program. Meanwhile, Syracuse is scrambling to regain its identity.

The past 12 months, maybe more, have not been a time of confetti and back-slaps in upstate New York. Syracuse self-imposed a postseason ban last year. Coach Jim Boeheim was suspended for the first nine games of this season. The Orange was ordered by the NCAA to vacate 108 wins from an earlier five-year period. It also lost eight scholarships over a four-year period.

Meanwhile, down in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers were on their way to another No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. It was the second in three years, enough of a run to prompt Boeheim to call Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett one of the best he has seen. Bennett was thankful, but dubious.

“He’s trying to butter me up,” Bennett said.

Sunday night’s Elite Eight game between top-seeded Virginia and No. 10 seed Syracuse will assure an all-ACC side of the Final Four. Notre Dame plays North Carolina for the other spot.

It will also stack two time-tested defenses against each other: Syracuse’s long-limbed 2-3 zone, and Virginia’s pack line.

The teams played just once this season — don’t get Boeheim started about the “horrific” scheduling in the ACC — and Syracuse was able to hang around in a 73-65 loss at Virginia. The Cavaliers led by 10 in the second half, lost that lead when Syracuse made a flurry of 3-pointers, then recovered when Malcolm Brogdon made key baskets.

Boeheim pointed to that game as one of the better offensive efforts of the season for Syracuse. That’s odd considering it shot 38.9 percent from the field. If it wasn’t for Michael Gbinije scoring 19 second-half points, mostly thanks to five made 3-pointers, the game would have been an easy win for Virginia. Only twice during the season did Gbinije hit more than five 3-pointers in a game.

On the flipside, Virginia used the efficient offense it has run all season to shoot 56.8 percent. It shot 65.4 percent from two in the game. The Cavaliers also had 18 assists on 25 field goals. In all, they took apart the Syracuse zone with relative ease.

“I think ball movement and shooting the ball confidently,” Brogdon said. “I think you have to work to get the ball in the middle of the zone, like any zone, you get the ball in the middle and you really break it down. But, I think moving the ball and making those guys work until you get the perfect shot for that possession, I think that’s the key.”

Each team has evolved since. Syracuse slipped into the tournament to set up its defensive-based run to this point. The Orange have held three NCAA tournament opponents to 53.7 points per game. The first two opponents, Dayton and Middle Tennessee, averaged 73 per game during the regular season. Gonzaga averaged 79 and scored 60.

Virginia is averaging 80.7 points per game in the tournament. It is also shooting 55.7 percent from the field. Half of its points come in the paint. This, coupled with the Cavaliers’ standard defense, has made them 8.5-point favorites to advance to the Final Four for the first time since 1984.

There are emotional aspects, too. Syracuse has been riding emotion from grumbling about its supposed easy schedule before the tournament, the fact that Boeheim has never had a team make the tournament and be seeded this low, plus last year’s ban.

Gbinije attended the East regional last year because Syracuse was a host. He watched Michigan State beat Louisville is his home gym to advance to the Final Four.

“I’d rather play than watch,” Gbinije said.

Virginia knows it will look very different next year after Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte graduate. It’s also aware that each step it takes further ingrains the team with the Ralph Sampson era at Virginia. The longer the run, the more it will have an argument to be included with the early 1980s teams that went to two Final Fours in three years. It just has to handle the zone on Sunday night.

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