Virginia stands one win away from its third consecutive 30-win season and its first berth in the Final Four since 1984, but conference foe Syracuse stands in their way. Here's what you need to know:
Who: No. 1 Virginia (29-7) vs. No. 10 Syracuse (22-13)
When: 6:09 p.m. ET on TBS
Where: United Center, Chicago, Ill.
1. How they got here
Virginia has been one of the most impressive teams in the tournament up to this point with strong wins over Hampton, Butler and Iowa State. In Friday’s Sweet 16 game between Virginia's strong defense and Iowa State's explosive offense, defense won out emphatically as UVa jumped out to an early 17-3 lead against the Cyclones and never looked back.
Syracuse won its tournament opener against Dayton in dominating fashion and then benefitted from a major upset in the second round. Instead of meeting Michigan State, the Orange faced Middle Tennessee State and again dominated with a 25-point victory. Down 57-48 with 6:28 left to go against Gonzaga, Syracuse rallied with a 15-3 run to close out the game and advance to Sunday’s Elite Eight matchup.
2. Who is Syracuse?
Heading into the tournament, Syracuse looked largely unimpressive. Head coach Jim Boeheim was suspended for nine games by the NCAA during the season and the Orange lost five of their final six games before they were selected as a 10 seed. Boeheim, however, showed once again that he knows how to win come tournament time.
As a 10 seed, the Orange are the lowest seed remaining in the tournament. Despite that, Syracuse is in the Elite Eight for the third time in five years and the seventh time under Boeheim. On Sunday, they will be playing for the sixth Final Four berth in school history.
The Orange win with their trademark 2-3 zone that seems to confound opposing offenses in March. Syracuse has allowed an average of only 53.7 points per game in their tournament run, less than even the 61.7 points Virginia’s stout defense has yielded in three games.
Just as Iowa State’s Georges Niang presented matchup problems for the Cavaliers in the Sweet 16, Syracuse has their own playmaker in Michael Gbinije who can both drive the rim and shoot from outside. He leads the Orange in scoring, assists and steals this season and is averaging 19.6 points in his last five games.
3. Previous meeting
As conference foes, Virginia and Syracuse met once this season on Jan. 24 in Charlottesville with the Cavaliers earning the 73-65 victory. The score remained close for much of the game with UVa leading 49-48 with just 5:58 remaining before Malcolm Brogdon took over to help the Cavaliers pull away.
There are some pretty obvious reasons, however, why this game may be different. The game was delayed for a day as Snowmageddon hit the Virginia region. With the delay and travel issues, Syracuse was not able to reach Virginia until the afternoon of the game. UVa also benefitted from home court advantage which they will not have Sunday in Chicago. In addition, as mentioned above, Syracuse is a team with tournament experience and really plays its best come March.
Virginia, however, also looks like a team hitting its stride. The win over Syracuse in January improved the Cavaliers’ ACC record to only 4-3. As impressive as the Cavaliers have been in the second half of the season, they certainly did not look that way to pen conference play.
4. Familiar foes
As previously alluded to, one of the major reasons Syracuse finds success come tournament time is their use of the 2-3 zone. Teams who are not familiar with it tend to struggle against it. Virginia, however, has already played and beaten Syracuse this season. In fact, UVa has not lost to the Orange since Tony Bennett took over as head coach.
Not only do the Cavaliers have experience against Syracuse this season, they also have a coach who knows how to beat Boeheim. That's a huge advantage that most teams don't have when they prepare to face the Orange in March.
5. ACC dominance
If Virginia can win on Saturday, they will go from one ACC foe to another as they will face the winner of North Carolina-Notre Dame in the Final Four. The ACC has had an impressive showing in this year’s tournament as the conference has already had six teams in the Sweet 16 and four team in the Elite Eight and is guaranteed two teams in the Final Four.
MORE COLLEGE HOOPS: Gill, Tobey lead Virginia past Iowa State 84-71 in Sweet 16