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The Cavaliers can score a major statement against the sagging Orange
Virginia wasn’t one of the first major stories of the season in the ACC, but it may be the last.
The Jabari Parker Watch was alive at Duke for most of the early part of the year, and Syracuse started 25-0 with a series of wild finishes.
The Cavaliers, though, may end up as league champions after Saturday. Virginia ascended to the ACC lead last week and will play their biggest game in decades against the Orange.
For its part, Syracuse is trying to reassert itself after a series of close calls and two losses in recent weeks.
The game may be a test in momentum. Through the course of the ACC season, Virginia has found complementary scorers for preseason conference player of the year contender for Joe Harris, or in the case of Malcolm Brogdon, a new leading scorer. Even freshman London Perrantes has emerged as a 3-point threat in recent weeks.
Many of the things that worked for Syracuse during that undefeated start have shown some cracks: C.J. Fair has been inconsistent, freshman Tyler Ennis is no longer invincible in end-of-game situations, and the 3-point shot has gone dormant.
What’s on the line for Syracuse
This is a tough question to ask of a team that started 25-0, but where is Syracuse going? After losses to Boston College and Duke, Syracuse bounced back to beat Maryland, but it was another close game and another narrow victory over a team not going to the NCAA Tournament. A game in Charlottesville is an opportunity for the Orange to regain their early season form.
What’s on the line for Virginia
History, pretty much. With a win over Syracuse, Virginia would lead the ACC by three games in the win column. Virginia has not won an outright ACC regular season title since 1981.
Saturday, 4 p.m. Eastern, ESPN
Record: 26-2, 13-2 ACC
Record: 24-5, 15-1 ACC
Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: Virginia 58-52
Braden Gall: Virginia 55-51
Mitch Light: Virginia 55-51
Despite that gaudy conference record, Virginia won’t be a contender for a No. 1 seed based on non-conference losses to VCU, Wisconsin, Green Bay and Tennessee. The Cavs quietly took the lead in the conference with a little help from the unbalanced schedule in the ACC. Virginia’s conference strength of schedule is ranked 15th in the ACC in KenPom. Win this game, and Virginia will be overlooked no more.
Pivotal player: Trevor Cooney, Syracuse
Since Cooney went for nine 3-pointers against Notre Dame, Syracuse’s top threat from beyond the arc is 11 of 40 from long range. The Cavaliers are allowing ACC opponents to shoot only 30.8 percent from 3-point range, the best rate in the league.
Biggest question: Will C.J. Fair take charge?
Fair is the senior and Syracuse’s leading scorer, but he’s also streaky. In the last five games, he’s shot 32 of 82 from the field (39 percent). Such a high-volume shooter probably needs to be more efficient, but that’s going to be tough against Virginia’s stingy defense.