More than 22,000 people escaped the cold and passed through revolving doors at the Carrier Dome, optimistically welcoming the return of college basketball. It didn't take long, however, for their ear-ringing cheers and harmonic chants to be replaced by an anxious ambient murmur.
Welcome to the experience of playing against Virginia's merciless, stifling defense. For their first act as defending national champions, the Cavaliers held Syracuse to two points in the first 11 minutes of the season. Opening the season against Virginia is like going on a tropical vacation and arriving to torrential thunderstorms.
The Cavaliers squeezed the life out of the Orange in a 48-34 victory Wednesday, holding Syracuse to its lowest point total since 1945.
"A little bit, yeah," Virginia forward Jay Huff said when asked if players can feel the tension rising when they smother an opponent in their own building. "Sometimes even the fans will – they'll get dead for a little bit, and then they'll try to pick it back up and then it kind of ebbs and flows."
For most of coach Tony Bennett's 11-year tenure, the Cavaliers have staked their reputation on their pack line defense. Virginia takes the fun out of basketball for its opponents, limiting them to attempting the toughest of baskets until, eventually, they tap out. In seven of the last eight seasons, the Cavaliers' defense has ranked in the top 10 in efficiency, per KenPom. That includes last season, when Virginia exorcised its March demons and delivered a national title to Charlottesville.
Prior to Wednesday's season opener, though, it was not clear how effective the 2019-20 version would be. Virginia lost its top three scorers, all of whom were selected in the NBA draft: De'Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy. The new-look Cavaliers started a freshman and a junior-college transfer against the Orange. Virginia's No. 11 ranking in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 felt like a tip of the cap to Bennett, whose teams have defied soft expectations to win the ACC in the past.
But a season opener on the road, in conference play, acted as an early proving ground. If we learned anything Wednesday, it's that these Cavaliers – led by undersized but relentless point guard Kihei Clark and long-limbed forward Mamadi Diakite – could be even tougher to score on than the previous teams.
"It's simple," Diakite said. "It's basically: We score, and we don't allow anyone to score on us. If you're scoring on us, then it has to be tough shots. All night."
To hear it from the Virginia players, winning a national championship didn't change the way the they pursued perfection this summer. If anything, after losing 68% of his team's scoring, Bennett pushed the Cavaliers even harder.
"Coach knew what to do at practice in order to get us to this level," said Diakite, who led Virginia with 12 points in its opener.
Diakite considered joining his former teammates in professional basketball after last season. But 45 minutes before the deadline to withdraw from the NBA draft, he announced on Instagram that he would return for his senior campaign.
He returned to a place where practices, he said, are "way harder" than games. That's by design.
Huff, a 7-foot-1 sophomore, explained that some of Virginia's drills push players harder than they will experience on the court in a game setting. He described a nonstop, three-minute transition exercise that puts players in a situation where they have to get into their half-court defense while fatigued – "simulating having to get back on defense with a team coming full speed ahead," he said.
The profits of such a drill were on display against the Orange, who often failed in their attempts to beat Virginia down the court and score before the Cavaliers could set up.
Take one play, 37 minutes into a game that was well on its way to being decided. The Cavaliers led 46-32 when Syracuse's Buddy Boeheim blocked a 3-point attempt by Clark late in the shot clock. Jalen Carey corralled the ball and pushed it to Elijah Hughes as the Orange tried to create an opportunity before Virginia could establish its defense.