It seems like just about every day now, a team that everyone has been counting out finds a way to win a big game and throws their name back into the at-large bid discussion. Two days ago, it was Indiana, Oklahoma, Furman, UCF, Utah State, and BYU that all picked up must have wins. Yesterday, it was Creighton, picking up a huge road win against a top ten ranked Marquette team, and Arizona State knocking off Oregon State in Corvallis.
In some seasons the bubble tends to shrink down the stretch as teams fade. This year that hasn’t been the case, as the bubble seems to be as wide open as I can remember it with just two weeks to go until Selection Sunday. In my estimation, there are at least eighty teams that have real chances of getting into the field of sixty-eight right now. How this last two week’s play out could not be more important for these teams that are right at the cut line.
One team that seems to be fairly safely on the right side of the bubble is the Orange of Syracuse. Conventional wisdom would say that the Orange have done enough to hear their names called on Selection Sunday, but they are just 19-10 on the season, and with two games left on their schedule that are both very losable, they could end the regular season 19-12. If they stumble to the finish line and then get knocked out in the first round of the ACC tournament, all the sudden, this team doesn’t look all that much like a lock to get a bid.
The Orange host the Virginia Cavaliers tonight, a team that won’t have any trouble getting into the tournament and is in the running for the number one overall seed. The Cavaliers are 26-2 on the season, and if they win out the last two games of the regular season, they will lock up at least a share of the ACC regular season title, which would be their fourth in six years under head coach Tony Bennet. The Cavs are -5.5-point road favorites. The game total over-under is set at 123 points. Tipoff is scheduled for 4:00 PM PST from the Carrier Dome in Syracuse.
Is this the year that Tony Bennet takes his Cavaliers team to the Final Four? All the analytics say yes. Kenpom has the Cavs rated number one overall, with the second-best defense in the country. But the difference between this team, and Virginia teams of the past, is that they can score the basketball. Virginia plays a slower pace than most teams, but on an efficiency basis, they are the fourth-best scoring team in the country. That is a major improvement from the past, where Virginia has had a lot of trouble scoring the basketball at times.
One thing that the Cavaliers have done a remarkable job doing this season is winning on the road. The Cavs have true road wins over Maryland, South Carolina, Boston College, Clemson, Notre Dame, N.C. State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and Louisville. There isn’t another team in the country that can tout that many solid true road wins. The only road loss of the year, came by just two points at the hands of Duke, and that was before Zion Williamson got hurt. Will Virginia be able to continue this run of road dominance tonight at Syracuse?
We talked a little bit above about Syracuse’s tournament resume. They have what is likely the biggest single win of any team this season when they went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and knocked off Duke. But besides that, the quality wins are few and far between for the Orange. Besides beating Duke, the only win they have had all season against a team that was ranked was when they knocked off Louisville at home two weeks ago.
So, while most people think it is a foregone conclusion that Syracuse gets a bid, I think they need to win at least one more game down the stretch. They are just 3-4 in their last seven and if they lose out, they will be 3-7 in their last ten. The committee likes to reward teams that are finishing strong, and the Orange need to figure out a way to win a game or two, or they are at risk of being left out.
When you look at what Virginia has been able to do on the road this season, it really has been remarkable. And it’s not just the wins, it is how they are winning on the road that makes this team so special. They beat South Carolina by seventeen, Boston College by twenty-seven, Clemson by twenty, Notre Dame by twenty-seven, and Louisville by twelve. This is a team that doesn’t just beat you on your home floor, they dominate you.
So, with all that being said, I was a bit surprised that all of the early money came in on Syracuse. I know the sharps like to back home underdogs, and so do I, but to see Virginia as only -5.5-point favorites is shocking. In their last three road games, against North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and Louisville, all teams that currently rate as better overall teams than Syracuse, the Cavs have won each of those games by at least six points.
So, I will do something I generally hate to do, and that is lay wood on the road in conference. The Cavs have only lost to Duke this year. That’s it. They have managed to run through the rest of the ACC, the nation’s best league, completely unscathed. I can’t pick against them tonight. I think the game will be competitive, but I also think that Virginia covers this number. Give me the Virginia Cavaliers laying -5.5-points tonight on the road at Syracuse!