March 2, 2015
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Snow was falling and the temperature was well below freezing when the University of Virginia men's basketball team landed at the local airport Sunday night.
About 24 hours earlier, in the warmth of John Paul Jones Arena, the second-ranked Cavaliers had celebrated a victory over Virginia Tech that moved them to the brink of a second straight outright ACC regular-season title. They'll try to take the final step Monday night inside Syracuse University's storied arena.
At 7 o'clock, on ESPN's Big Monday showcase, Virginia (27-1, 15-1) meets Syracuse (18-11, 9-7) at the 35,012-seat Carrier Dome. The Wahoos haven't played there since Nov. 28, 2008, about four months before Tony Bennett took over as their head coach.
"I've heard so many stories about the Carrier Dome," UVa big man Darion Atkins said after practice Sunday at JPJ. "It's a big stage, and I'm glad I have a chance to play there my last year."
After taking on Syracuse, Virginia closes the regular season Saturday night at No. 17 Louisville (23-6, 11-15). The Cavaliers clinched a share of the ACC regular-season championship with their 69-57 win over Virginia Tech. One more victory -- or a loss by Duke (26-3, 13-3), which also has two regular-season games left -- would secure the outright title for the `Hoos.
Before the season, media members who cover the ACC picked UVa to finish fourth in the conference.
"We had high expectations for this year," Atkins said, "but I don't really think anyone saw us getting to this spot or having the season we've had so far. We've worked really hard. We're 27-1, so of course it would be a heartbreaker if we couldn't get it done."
For Virginia, the 2013-14 season ended with a loss to Michigan State at Madison Square Garden in the NCAA tournament's Sweet Sixteen. The `Hoos haven't lost on an opponent's home court, though, since March 9, 2014, when they fell in overtime to Maryland in College Park.
The ACC and NCAA tourneys await the Cavaliers. For the Orange, though, the situation is different. In response to NCAA violations its basketball program committed, Syracuse last month self-imposed a postseason ban for Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim's team.
Win or lose, the Orange ends the season Saturday night at NC State, and that adds another storyline to Virginia's visit to the Carrier Dome.
"They have nothing to lose, so they're going to come at us," Atkins said Saturday night. "We've got a target on our back. I know they're going to give us their all, and we just gotta come ready."
UVa's associate head coach, Ritchie McKay, prepared the scouting report on the Orange, and he expects a wild scene on Senior Night at the Carrier Dome. Among those honored will be Syracuse's best player, 6-9 senior center Rakeem Christmas (17.8 ppg, 9.2 rpg).
"There'll be 30,000-plus people there," McKay said. "If you're Syracuse, really it's your last chance to play kind of loose and carefree. What do you have to lose? You're not going to the postseason, so there's no pressure. You're not playing your way off the [NCAA tournament] bubble or playing for a higher seed. This is it at home. This is the last time you'll put on the white jersey. I think they'll be loose, they'll be carefree, but they're also well-coached, so they'll be well-prepared."
The Cavaliers convened at JPJ early Sunday afternoon, and a short practice followed. The quick turnaround left Virginia with little time to prepare for Monday night's game, but the Orange have no advantage on that front. Syracuse played -- and lost -- Saturday night to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"Honestly, I think it all equals out," McKay said, "and for our program, we just don't want to have a built-in reason why we don't bring our very best."
This will be the fourth game in nine days for the `Hoos, and they'll be facing Boeheim's trademark 2-3 zone and taking on a team celebrating Senior Night.
"There's a lot of different things that you can evaluate and say, `Oh, man, this is going to be really tough,' " McKay said. "But it's been tough all year, and I really believe for us, our agenda is to keep getting better."
Virginia's only loss this season was to Duke, which rallied for a 69-63 win Jan. 31 at JPJ.
A year ago, the Cavaliers were 15-1 in ACC, with their only conference loss to Duke, when they hosted No. 4 Syracuse in Charlottesville. UVa hammered the Orange 75-56 to clinch the outright ACC regular-season title for the first time since 1981.
"We're staring at that same scenario, and we're happy to be in that position, where we have a chance to win the conference outright," McKay said.
That's not a topic, however, that Bennett raises with his players. "We're trying to get better," McKay said. "Coach says, `Put on your March face,' and we know we've got some games ahead of us that are going to be stiff challenges. But the rest of the way's like that."
In 2013-14, Syracuse's stars included Jerami Grant, C.J. Fair and Tyler Ennis, all of whom are now playing professionally.
The 2014-15 Orange is "not as long of a group," McKay said, "but it's maybe a little quicker, and it's a Jim Boeheim-coached team, so they know what they're doing."
Among ACC teams, Syracuse ranks fourth in scoring defense and fifth in field-goal percentage defense. (Virginia leads in both categories.)
"It's going to be a great test for us," Atkins said, "but I feel like we've had enough games where we've played against high-level talent that we can go in and not expect anything different."
Against the Orange's trademark 2-3, McKay said, the `Hoos must remember that "a good shot is important every time down, whether the quality shot comes with 23 seconds left on the shot clock or 12 seconds left or seven seconds left.
"Then the other thing is, you gotta take care of the ball even better against the Syracuse zone. I think an understated stat for them is how often they turn you over, especially those two guys up top, in their post offense or their trap defense in the zone. We've got to handle it with sureness and then attack on a regular basis."
Atkins, a 6-8 senior, attacked Virginia Tech's defese repeatedly Saturday night and finished with 16 points, his career high in an ACC game. He also totaled six rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots and two steals before leaving the game to a standing ovation in the final minute.
"It's huge for us, and it's huge for him, to have him go out with a bang like that," sophomore point guard London Perrantes said Saturday night. "It's not over, though. He knows it's not over, so he wasn't really emotional with it. We've got some bigger games ahead of us."
Atkins said: "I wish it could have lasted longer, but it is what it is, and it was a great Senior Night."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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