Game Preview: Syracuse

Thanks, ACC schedule. Thanks a lot. If I wanted to revisit the pain of having what felt like a sure Final Four berth yanked away (Syracuse shouldn’t have even made the tournament, they said… we dominate Boeheim’s zones, they said… Virginia never coughs up leads, they said), there are plenty of opportunities over the course of a season to watch the Orange play without having to watch Virginia play them. That loss was like a particularly excruciating breakup, and I’m not sure that I’m ready to hang out and make polite small talk.

The game is coming, ready or not. The impact of last year will be lessened by most of the principals moving on; Malcolm Brogdon, Mike Tobey, Michael Gbinijie and Malachi Richardson to the NBA, Anthony Gill to Turkey, and Trevor Cooney to the role of “MY BALL” guy in upstate New York rec leagues. These are two very different teams.

Syracuse has had a strange season so far. The ugly losses on the schedule (52–50 to UConn, 93–60 to St. John’s, 96–81 in their ACC opener to BC) outnumber the quality wins (FSU for sure, and who knows beyond that because the ACC is playing on shuffle this season). They have won three straight, sandwiching their wire-to-wire whuppin’ of the Seminoles between comeback wins over Wake and NC State.

This might be Jim Boeheim’s worst defensive team ever. It’s definitely his worst since Ken Pomeroy started databasing stats; Cuse’s defensive efficiency of 101.4 will be the first time in KenPom’s 16-year existence that Syracuse opponents crack a point per possession for the season if it lasts, and it probably will (their ACC mark so far is a sizzling 112.7).

The problem is that this is a patchwork group. Tyus Battle and Tauren Thompson are battling the defensive inefficiencies that come with being a freshman and Andrew White and John Gillon are both graduate transfers logging their one and only year with the program before moving on. Familiarity — both with the system and with the tendencies of teammates — is a crucial aspect of good team defense, and it isn’t there yet for ‘Cuse.

Syracuse isn’t turning teams over like they usually do (their turnover rate of 19.9% overall and 18.8% in ACC play is considerably lower than the 22–23% range it usually inhabits) and they’re hemorrhaging threes. ‘Cuse is in the bottom third of the league in every major three point defense statistic from ACC games:

  • 14th in opposing three point rate (threes are 41.3% of the shots they yield)
  • 11th in opposing three point percentage (39.8%)
  • 15th (dead last) in the percentage of opposing points that come via the three (38.1%)

Tack on that the 2/3 as a rule and the front line of Thompson/Tyler Roberson and Lydon in particular is lean on the defensive glass (opponents grab 37.5% of their misses, and only Virginia Tech has failed to crack 30%), and it’s been difficult for Syracuse to string stops together. The only thing they’ve consistently done well is protect the rim, where the Tylers and Thompson combine for 3.4 blocks per game.

Offensively, things are better. Lydon was hailed as ‘Cuse’s next star in preseason, and he’s shaken off an abysmal first month to look the part. He’s making more than half of his threes since the middle of December, shaking off the slow start to score 16.2 points per game in conference play. He’s not a banger at the four spot, but he’s dangerous in space.

Andrew White is scoring 17.2 points per game for the season with a solid slash line (43/80/40) in spite of being a black hole (just 30 assists for the season). His role has changed from what he was doing at Nebraska (he’s going to blow past his career-high of 211 three point attempts like, next week), but he’s reliably getting buckets all the same.

Gillon, who had scored in double figures nine times in 22 games prior and who I couldn’t have picked out of a lineup before writing this, is a pass-first (5.3 apg, 36% assist rate) point guard but merits mention here because he just scored 43 points and hit nine threes against NC State, fueling their incredible and improbable comeback win.

‘Cuse is in the top half of the ACC in efficiency (114.3, second), EFG% (53.9, fourth), turnover rate (16.7%, sixth) and offensive rebound percentage (30.8, sixth). Their MO this season has been to outscore opponents: they’ve 12–1 this season when they break 75 and are just 2–8 when they fail to get there. Virginia, meanwhile, is 0–1 when an opponent hits 75. If you see what you think is an important number here, remember it.

Our keys against ‘Cuse are the same as they’ve always been: make wise decisions against the zone, close out on shooters, and avoid getting sped up when they trap (the latter two items contributing massively to the debacle in March, as we all remember).

London Perrantes has performed extraordinarily against Syracuse; in four meetings over his first three seasons, he scored 12.5 points per game, shot 54% on threes (14–26) and logged 25 assists to just 10 turnovers. You could call him the primary key to our success in all four and wouldn’t be wrong. He will get shots in this one (it’s not like Boeheim to go man or throw a junk D at an opposing star) if he looks for them.

We’ve also had a lot of success against ‘Cuse with Malcolm Brogdon or Anthony Gill living at the elbow, and saw Devon have some success there in that same role against Virginia Tech the other night. Hall (19 assists, five turnovers in our last five games) will be very important as a scorer from five to 10 feet and distributor from the heart of the zone.

Devon drops in for a hang. (WRIC.com)

Isaiah Wilkins (who has been within a basket or two rebounds of a double-double in five of our last six games and has scored in double figures in three straight) will have midrange jumpers if he wants them; he’s never had a big game against ‘Cuse before, but it seems like he could. It will be interesting to see how well he’s able to guard Lydon before we have to go with the four guard lineup and put Devon or Marial on him. I’d like to keep Jack out there as long as we can.

Virginia:
G: London Perrantes — 6'2'’ sr #32

I bet that would look even better if you go by per/40. His willingness to take over when needed showed vs. VT when he ended their second half run. 
G: Devon Hall — 6'5'’ jr. #0
Devon, a 6'5" guard recruited to play the point, is 0.2% away from being our best defensive rebounder by percentage.
F: Marial Shayok — 6'6'’ jr #4
Marial excels at exploiting seams in defenses for his offense, I especially like what he offers against zones.
F: Isaiah Wilkins — 6'7'’ jr #21
Wilkins’s tour de force performance against Tech sealed it: this is peak Isaiah we’re seeing. Whatever was bothering him earlier this season has moved on.
F: Jack Salt — 6'11'’ so #33
Salt wasn’t a great fit for Tech, but could be a key on the glass against ‘Cuse.
G: Darius Thompson — 6'4'’ jr #51
DT played just seven minutes against VT and fell behind both Ty and Guy in the rotation. I’m not sure that lasts, but I get it.
G: Kyle Guy — 6'3'’ fr #5
KG made a first half three against Tech, which suggests that there’s at least a crack in the ice.
G: Ty Jerome — 6'5'’ fr #11
Jerome owned our offense for a three minute stretch of the first half vs. VT, pairing a difficult layup and a canned three with some interesting choices.

‘Cuse: 
G: John Gillon — 6’0'’ sr #4
Gillon weird fact: he’s taken 28 of the 75 free throws he’s attempted all season over the last two games.
G: Andrew White — 6'7'’ sr #3
White takes more than eight threes per game, inheriting Malachi Richardson’s role in the ‘Cuse offense (Richardson hit nine threes in two games with us last year).
F: Tyus Battle — 6'6'’ fr #25
Battle had a five game run of double-figure outings from January 10th to 21st, but has cooled, going 1–9 from deep over Syracuse’s last three. 
F: Tyler Lydon — 6'9'’ so #20
Lydon’s good: he put up 26 and 7 on UNC’s front line. I think he’d benefit from some of White’s shots. 
C: Taurean Thompson — 6'10'’ fr #12
Freshman center is blocking 7.4% of opposing shot attempts and has scored in double figures 11 times, including four ACC games. Has stretch-five ambition; he’s taken 11 threes (making two). 
F: Tyler Roberson — 6'8'’ sr #21
Roberson’s a blue collar big, which is why he’s played the most minutes alongside Lydon. 
G: Frank Howard — 6'5'’ so #1
Sophomore point guard cuts a more imposing figure in the 2–3 than Gillon does, but doesn’t run an offense nearly as well, which is why his minutes have cratered (single digits or a DNP in five of their last 10 games).
F: DaJuan Coleman — 6'9'’ sr #32
Senior can play — he’s Cuse’s best rebounder on both ends — but knee problems have severely limited his availability: he’s played significant minutes just twice this month.

Verdict:
There are a lot of reasons to like us in this one:

  • ‘Cuse likes to force turnovers in the half court. Virginia routinely has three players on the court that you can call a point guard, and has been very sound with the ball lately (no TO% over 18.5 since Clemson).
  • The Orange are shooting 39.5% on threes, but our last seven opponents have combined to hit 28.5%.
  • The Syracuse defense is most effective near the rim, but we have a lot of guys that can score in the midrange area. This could be a big one for Marial Shayok.

Syracuse is a talented team, especially on offense where they’ve got some guys with the ability to black out for a second and shoot them into a game. I know that a collection of explosive players like that, capable of the kind of volume they put up night in and night out, are always a threat to go off. The Lydon matchup worries me.

However, this Virginia team is playing good, smart basketball right now — especially on defense, and especially on the perimeter — and I think last week’s meetings with Notre Dame and Villanova showed it. If Syracuse has to outscore us to win, I like our chances most days.

Things happen on the road in the ACC, especially this season, but I’d have a hard time picking against us.

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