Syracuse's play has ACC seeing orange
Posted February 6
I spent all of January thinking Syracuse was the third best team in the ACC behind Duke and Pittsburgh.
Saturday’s shootout with the Blue Devils has disabused me of that notion, largely because it WAS a shootout. The Orange’s half court offense struggled in wins against Miami, North Carolina, Pitt, and Wake Forest, but against Duke Syracuse shot 54 percent and hit enough clutch buckets to withstand a serious offensive assault from the Devils.
There has never been any question about Syracuse’s defense.
Syracuse not only holds teams to 40 percent shooting (fourth best In the ACC), the Orange leads the league in both steals and blocked shots, while playing a zone defense. That’s pretty rare in college basketball. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an entire team block shots like Syracuse – any shot close to the basket is contested by anywhere from three to six long arms.
But what the Duke game demonstrated is the notion that Syracuse’s struggle on offense is mere perception. This team actually ranks fifth in field goal shooting in conference games (all stats used here come just from ACC games, not from the games of November and December against typically les- formidable opposition).
Trevor Cooney’s emergence from a slump has also given the Orange’s three-point shooting a jolt – now sixth at 35 percent. And Tyler Ennis makes as many clutch passes and baskets as anyone in the league. When they miss, C.J. Fair and company get offensive rebounds 40 percent of the time.
At Pitt, At Duke, At Virginia
And yet, the Orange of Syracuse may well give way to the Orange and Blue of Virginia in the ACC standings. Why? In large part because of the schedule. Syracuse must play at Pitt, at Duke and at Virginia. Syracuse barely beat the Panthers and Devils at home, and should the nation’s number one team survive those two trips, there remains a visit to Charlottesville.
Next to Syracuse, no team in the league right now is playing better than Virginia.
Poor shooting and I don’t know what else doomed December for the Cavaliers, but they are cooking now. UVA now ranks third in shooting and first in turnover margin in ACC play.
The Cavs’ efficient half-court offense usually leads to a good shot – and that might be a three point shot. Virginia hits 40 percent of its tries from beyond the arc, also third in the ACC.
Defense is where the Cavaliers shine. They are No. 1 in field goal percentage at 37 percent, three points better than Syracuse. The Cavs defend the three well, and they rank just behind Syracuse in steals. Blocking shots? Yeah, they do that, too.
The one area where Virginia has slipped slightly is defensive rebounding percentage. UVA under Tony Bennett has dominated this statistic, but this year the Cavs have fallen to 70 percent. Still respectable, but fourth in the league. Indeed, it was a missed box out against Duke’s Amile Jefferson that led to the Rasheed Sulaimon three that handed Virginia its only conference defeat.
Better Than Syracuse?
I’m not saying Virginia is better than Syracuse. What I am saying is that Virginia may wind up with a better record than Syracuse. Check this schedule: Road games at Georgia Tech, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Maryland. The Cavs will be decisive favorites in all their home games except the one against the Orange.
Virginia could finish 17-1 or 16-2.
By the way, if Syracuse runs the table and wins at Pitt, Duke and Virginia, finishing at 18-0, the Orange should go down as one of the great teams in ACC history.
Duke needs a lot of help in order to win the ACC regular season, and it’s really unlikely to think that both Syracuse and Virginia will wind up with three losses. Still, the Devils will likely be the team no one wants to see at tournament time. Duke has the only decisive win over Pittsburgh, and the Blue Devils’ play has improved dramatically since those early losses at Notre Dame and Clemson.
What’s Different at Duke?
Mike Krzyzewski’s team has made strides on the defensive end, and especially under the backboard. Duke ranks fourth in steals and seventh in defensive rebounding. The Devils excel at converting turnovers and missed shots into easy transition baskets.
Offensively, Duke shoots just 42 percent in conference games, which is 12th. But so what? Duke also shoots 42 percent from three-point range, and that’s first.
Additionally, Duke leads the ACC in free throw shooting at 79 percent. There is one big problem – Duke is practically last in field goal percentage defense, as teams shoot almost 47 percent against the Devils.
The schedule is challenging, not quite like Syracuse’s February slate, but tougher than Virginia’s. Duke has a home and home with arch-rival North Carolina, a road trip to unpredictable Wake Forest, in addition to the meeting with the Orange in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Pitt, like Duke, is a potential NCAA heavyweight that probably must be content for a third or fourth place finish in its own conference. The Panthers’ close losses to Syracuse and Virginia, and the double digit loss against the Devils, will now be tough to overcome in the standings.
Statistically, Pitt competes with the best in the ACC. The Panthers are the best shooting team in the league, although that was difficult to discern in Wednesday’s game at Miami, where Pitt needed overtime to score 59 points.
Still the Panthers are hitting 47 percent of their shots in conference games – that’s three points better than anyone else. Pitt shoots the three ball well, and ranks seventh in free throws at 68 percent. Pitt will always compete on the boards, and defensively, you have to like the numbers for steals (third) and field goal defense (sixth).
Pitt does not block many shots, but then neither does Duke. Like Duke, the Panthers are among the top four in turnover margin, and they also do a terrific job of converting defense to offense with their transition game.
Above all, Pitt seems to have the formula for attacking THE SYRACUSE 2-3 ZONE. I know Syracuse won the first meeting between these teams, but the Panthers’ zone offense against the Orange was every bit as effective as Duke’s.
This team can pass and shoot. Pitt did have difficulty against Miami’s match-up zone, but that likely was an aberration.
The schedule fairies didn’t make February easy for the Panthers, with road trips to UNC, Clemson, and Notre Dame, plus the big game with Syracuse at the Petersen Events Center.
What about Carolina and State?
UNC suffered a disastrous start but has slowly become a formidable contingent over the past two weeks. This team does not shoot well, ranking just 11th in field goal percentage and 13th in shooting from beyond the arc.
Free throws are an even bigger problem.
But thanks to rebounding and defense, the Tar Heels have won four straight games. UNC, along with Syracuse, leads the ACC in offensive rebounding percentage, claiming 40 percnet of their own misses.
Defensively, Tar Heel opponents are shooting just 41 percent, good for fifth in the ACC. Carolina ranks fifth in steals and fifth in turnover margin, stats that are good enough to win on nights when the Heels can find the basket, especially from the free throw line.
James Michael McAdoo has given Carolina a real boost of late. He is one of just two among the ACC’s leading scorers (Virginia’s Malcolm Brogden is the other) shooting better than 50 percent. But the Tar Heels still suffer a lot of inconsistency on offense. Wednesday against Maryland, UNC had 82 possessions, but scored points on just 42 of them. 40 possessions went empty-missed shot, turnover or missed free throw(s).
The upcoming schedule is demanding, with home games against Duke, Pitt, Wake Forest and Notre Dame, not to mention road trips to Notre Dame, Florida State, NC State, Virginia Tech, and Duke. But Carolina should have a chance at the fifth, sixth, and seventh seeds in the ACC Tournament (top nine get a bye until Thursday, top four get a bye until Friday), and likely will get a bid to the NCAA Tournament with nine or ten conference wins, along with their non-conference wins against Louisville, Michigan State, and Kentucky.
All ACC teams want to avoid the dreaded “Play-In Wednesday," and NC State has shown signs it can do just that. The Pack’s defense continues to get better. Teams are now shooting just 43 percent against NCSU.
State’s shot blockers are rejecting more than four shots per game, fourth in the league. Consistent offense alongside T. J. Warren remains the big issue. State really struggled in the first half at Carolina.
State’s schedule certainly gives the club some influence over how the ACC regular season plays out with road trips to Syracuse, Clemson, and Pitt and home games against Wake Forest and UNC.
Remember at season’s end, teams 10-15 in the standings must play Wednesday in Greensboro, and would have to win for five straight days to capture the ACC title. Positions 5-9 in the standings don’t have to play until Thursday.
It should be another fun February along Tobacco Road.