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Virginia’s first game since winning it all? Syracuse has its worst scoring game under Jim Boeheim

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Bizarre Wednesday night in college basketball. Records being set in different parts of the country. 

Down in North Carolina, Cole Anthony scored 34 points and set a Tar Heels freshman record

Here in central New York, Syracuse scored 34 points and set a Carrier Dome record.

Yes, that’s correct. The opening game of Jim Boeheim’s 44th season as Syracuse coach was witness to his team managing just 34 points, which was not only the fewest it’s scored under Boeheim but is the fewest for the men’s program dating back to …

Hold up, gotta flip through a few more pages here …

Ah, that’s it. OK, says here, “World War II.” 

In 1945, a military-base team named Sampson Navy demoralized Syracuse to the tune of 49-28. Well, at least Virginia has a new target to hit. Two seasons ago, UVA holding the Orange to 44 at home was a program-under-Boeheim and Carrier Dome-low. Now this: No. 11 Virginia, playing its first game since winning the 2019 national title 212 days ago and without three NBA picks from last season’s roster, managed to put up one of its stingiest defensive performances under coach Tony Bennett.

“I thought they’d be better defensively than last year,” Boeheim said. 

Well, he’s right. At least if first impressions last. Imagine that: an even tougher group defensively than the national champs. 

Bennett told me afterward that if Virginia’s going to eventually compete for an ACC title it will no-doubt-about-it need to be better on defense this season than it was last.

Sure, Syracuse wasn’t regarded as top-25 and maybe not even top-50 caliber coming into the season, so its struggles were to be expected. But for Virginia to do what it did with a largely new set of players? And manage to win by 14 points even when not scoring 50? Only a Bennett-coached team could pull off the feat. 

Orange fans marched out en masse with more than five minutes remaining. Syracuse was a putrid 5-of-29 from 3-point range and 8-of-26 from inside the perimeter (30.8%). Virginia’s now 11-0 in ACC openers under Bennett. Incredibly, this was the 24th time a team has scored fewer than 40 points against the Bennett-coached Wahoos. I mean, what?

“I know we have to be good defensively,” Bennett said of this team’s big-picture outlook. “That will be very significant for how good we can be.”

That’s the lesson here. Virginia will not be as good offensively as it was a season ago; Bennett told me that this group’s got a ways to go to figuring out how it even establishes an offensive identity. So repeating as national champions is a huge ask, probably one too big for UVA to accomplish. But this team can be even more of a nuisance without the ball. And it can be better on the carom. Virginia mauled Cuse on the boards, which included 5-foot-8 Kihei Clark notching his first double-double as a Cavalier: with points (10) and rebounds (11). Wednesday night was the first time in almost 26 years that three Virginia players had at least 10 rebounds. Jay Huff had 12, a career-best, Braxton Key with 10. 

That’s wild. 

But that’s Virginia. 

“We won’t play anyone better defensively this year except when we play them again,” Boeheim said. 

Boeheim won’t have to worry about that for nearly two months. His guys will no doubt dread the trip to Charlottesville come Jan. 11

Boeheim hates conference play to open the season

A quick separate note on a small piece of news that came from the aftermath of this game. I asked Boeheim if it was a beneficial thing for his team and all ACC teams to be forced to match up against each other to start the season. Of course, in most cases, power-conference schools opt to schedule low-major fodder to wade into the season.

But the birth of the ACC Network forced a chance for that league’s team this year, with the exception of Duke, which always gets a big-boy matchup in the Champions Classic.

Boeheim hates the idea.

“I wish we’d have won, so when I say it, what I’m gonna say would matter, but when you lose nobody wants [to hear it],” he said. “You never want to to play these league games early. It’s stupid. It’s just a money grab. They got scheduled games for TV, for the TV contracts so you’ve got to play games early. And then somebody had the brilliant idea of open up the first game with a league game. I just don’t think it’s good, I don’t think it’s smart. You want to build up to the league. The league’s the most important thing, so why would you play the first game of the year in the league? Makes no sense to me.”

Boeheim would find that most if not all ACC coaches agree with him on this. He made sure to note that you never want to play a team like Virginia right away because of their elite ability on defense and because offenses usually need a bit more time to find a groove. 

As for Bennett, I asked him the same question. After all, reigning national champs being forced to open on the road against a league opponent? It was a bizarre scheduling decision. The last time a team coming off a title in men’s basketball opened on the road was UCLA — 52 years ago.  

“Twenty-four hours ago my answer was different than right now at this moment,” Bennett said with a smile. 

He wasn’t over the moon about it, but understood why it happened. It did create some — but not an extraordinary amount — of additional buzz in this first week of the season. The general expectation is that this is a one-time thing, though. The coaches aren’t in favor of it and they’re likely to get back to their usual ways in 2020 of playing a patsy or two before facing a true threat in mid-to-late November. 

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