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THE BIG PREVIEW: #3 Virginia vs Syracuse

The Hoos and Orange meet for the first of two regular season meetings.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Winners of five straight, the Hoos face their nemesis in the Syracuse Orange tonight at JPJ. Cuse is 12-4 on the season, including 1-2 in the ACC. They’ve lost their past two games, including a home game to Notre Dame on Saturday. In case you haven’t heard, Notre Dame is playing without 1st team All-ACC and preseason ACC POY Bonzie Colson. Cuse led nearly the entire game, but fell on a fast-break putback with two seconds left.

That game winning play highlights two issues for this Syrcause team. One is turnovers. They are turning the ball over on almost 20% of their possessions (the Hoos turn it over on 14% of their possessions). And they give up a lot of offensive rebounds, something that has long plagued Syracuse teams as well as other zone-heavy teams. For a Wahoo team that has been forcing a lot more turnovers this year that previous years, the first issue is something to watch. The second…isn’t. The Hoos are not a good offensive rebounding team, which is a style thing as opposed to a personnel thing. Isaiah Wilkins is an outstanding offensive rebounder (better than an offensive outstanding rebounder).

This year, right now, Syracuse ranks 111th in defensive rebounds. But the past two years, they ranked 335th and 337th. The improvement may be related to quality of opponent. In other words, as they get into ACC play, their rank may drop. Considering Notre Dame’s performance without Colson, that seems possible. However, it may also be that Syracuse is the tallest team in the nation. Based on minutes played, they average nearly 6’8”. Just one rotation player (Howard Washington) is under 6’5”, and he averages just 5 minutes per game. Syracuse has always boasted a lot of length, but this year is ridiculous.

Three Orange players average more than 37 minutes per game. Just 10 players in nation average more (one of whom is former Wahoo Darius Thompson). That lack of depth may be a reason why they ultimately fell to Notre Dame. That was a very physical game, and they seemed to lose steam late. The Hoos also play a very physical game, so hopefully we won’t see a late game collapses this time out (sorry for bringing back some unpleasant memories).

Syracuse ranks 11th in the nation in defensive efficiency. It is tough to get good looks from inside against the zone. Not surprisingly, the Orange are tops in the nation in shot blocking (by rate). That is led by 7’2” Providence transfer Paschal Chukwu, who averages over 3 blocks per game. They are also 6th in the nation in steals (by rate). But, they rank 96th in the nation in three point shooting defense. That is another weakness of the zone. If you move the ball quickly enough, you can get open looks from the outside. Get the ball into the teeth of the zone and then kick it out. Here’s an example from Notre Dame. Great look for D.J. Harvey from three.

On the offensive end, Syracuse has struggled. They rank 127th in offensive efficiency. In the ACC, they are ahead of only Georgia Tech. They don’t shoot many threes, which is good since they don’t have a single player who shoots over 38% (Virginia has three, so does Notre Dame).

They do a lot of their damage on the offensive glass. They are 5th in the nation in offensive rebounding, which is really the only offensive statistic they rank high in outside of getting to the line a lot. Those two things often go together. Teams that perform well on the interior get offensive rebounds and get to the line. Problem for Cuse is that they don’t shoot FTs particularly well (70%, compared to 75% for the Hoos).

Of course, getting to the line isn’t just about scoring points. The Hoos really only have three rotation players on the inside. If one of Jack Salt, Isaiah Wilkins and Mamadi Diakite get into foul trouble, it could get dicey in the middle. Tony Bennett has gotten a lot of mileage from DeAndre Hunter on the inside this year, and that may need to continue this week. Hunter has shown the ability to both guard on the inside and fight for rebounds. Plus, he gives the Hoos another outside shooter, although he’s just 5-for-24 from downtown (21%). Maybe Jay Huff could get some run in this one? Syracuse has a lot of height, but not bulk. Chukwu is 7’2”, but Huff outweighs him. Two other big men are 6’8” or more and under 200 pounds. The idea of a 7-foot zone-buster excites me.

The Hoos generally perform well against teams that can’t shoot. The pack line defense is pretty much designed solely to stop interior scoring. If you rely on interior scoring, you’re going to struggle. Especially when that interior scoring doesn’t really include one single dominant inside scorer. Syracuse’s top three scorers are perimeter players. In last year’s game, Syracuse shot 7-for-18 from three, but made two-thirds of their shots inside. They also dominated inside, to the tune of 20 FTs versus five for the Hoos. That was a home game for Cuse though. Hopefully, the calls would be more even at JPJ.

This is a matchup between two of the best defenses in the nation, and two of the slowest paced teams in the nation. The media is going to hate this game, and they are going to complain about how we’re ruining basketball, but it’ll probably be close and hard fought. Just don’t be surprised if the two teams combine to score about 75 points.