Can Syracuse Go Undefeated?

Coach Jim Boeheim, still going strong in his 37th year at Syracuse - Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off of a Final Four run, the unbeaten Orange visit Cassell Coliseum to play the Hokies Tuesday night

Basketball royalty visits Blacksburg tonight, when #2 Syracuse and Virginia Tech face off in the second ACC conference game for each school. Coach Jim Boeheim will be looking for win number 935, and his team will be looking to extend their season opening 14-game win streak. While many predicted Syracuse would be a strong challenger for the national championship, I have begun to see simulations that use the RPI and Ken Pom and other real-time ratings services suggest  Syracuse may lose two or less games all season. The last team to go undefeated and win a national title were the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. Another similarity in this scenario is that the 1975 Hoosiers went to the Elite Eight, and last year's Orangemen were a national semi-finalist. The experience of a deep run was undoubtedly the foundation upon which the undefeated Hoosier team was built. Syracuse is extremely strong defensively, and has several options offensively. They are versatile and deep.

To the Hokies' credit, to test themselves they scheduled Michigan State. But  to the Hokies' discredit they failed that test in losing by 19 points in a game that was never close. And when fans enter the arena to see 0-0 on the scoreboard as the players warm up, they should know that the scoreboard should really read Syracuse 8-0, or even 10-0. The Hokies rank 337th in the nation in turnover margin at -5.4 per game. Meanwhile, Syracuse is 5th with +6.4 per game. This is not an ideal match-up for most teams, let alone Virginia Tech. Since Syracuse is always in the 2-3 zone, which they extend as far as humanly possible while remaining maddeningly elastic, it is vital that a team have good spacing and ball movement to earn the corner threes that can beat a zone. The Hokies shoot most of their threes in transition off of one or two passes before the opposing defense gets set. The Hokies are an extremely accurate three-point shooting team, ranking number six in the country at 42.5%. The Syracuse transition defense is so disciplined and reliable though, that it won't be possible for the shooters like Jarrell Eddie, Ben Emelogu, or Marshall Wood to get those fluid open looks. Syracuse beat Miami 49-44 over the weekend, and I think I saw what we'll look like offensively out of Miami, who scored 44 points and turned it over 15 times in hanging with Syracuse unexpectedly until the closing minutes of Saturday's game.

Syracuse is ranked fourth in the RPI on Real Time RPI's website. At 14-0, they have five very strong wins, with two elite wins against Baylor and Villanova. They have taken shots from teams who will probably be as good as any they'll face in the ACC. Duke is strong but not as versatile, and UNC is disappointing and missing PJ Hairston's scoring. Pitt may be the toughest challenge Syracuse faces this season. Until Notre Dame's Jerian Grant was lost to academics, I had thought the game vs Notre Dame might be tricky for Syracuse, but now it looks like an easy home win. While I have reservations about predicting a completely unbeaten season for Syracuse, you do have to admit that in every game in the ACC this season they should be the favorite. This is a team that went to the Final Four, then lost two heavy contributors in Michael Carter Williams (#11 pick in the draft and likely NBA Rookie of the Year in a weak draft class); and Brandon Triche, whose father uncle Howard played for the 1987 Syracuse team that Keith Smart stung with his baseline jumper in the Final, so a pedigreed individual in his own right. And now the team might be a more complete version than last year's squad having changed out it's entire starting back-court.

The team is anchored by possibly the best floor leader in the country in freshman guard Tyler Ennis, and this is saying something considering we've already seen the Michigan State senior Keith Appling. The 6'2 guard ranks number two in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio with 4.53 to 1. Ennis is also ninth in the country in steals with 38. The Orange give up just 59.8 points per game which is 13th best. Shooting guard Trevor Cooney is 16th in three point field goal percentage at 45.9%. Cooney is also a ball-hawk on defense ranking 30th nationally in steals with 31. The backside guard in the 2-3 zone is always able to take the passing lane away on haphazard skip passes and it leads to easy transition buckets.

The Syracuse zone leads to a lot of forced three point shots by their opponents. Their opponents shoot 22 three point shots a game, while Syracuse takes just 14 themselves. Syracuse opts for higher-percentage shots and forces their opponents into worse shots. Coupled with the turnover margin and a solid rebounding advantage, the Orange also typically take 7-10 more shots than their opponent. The additional threes and the additional possessions lead to Syracuse controlling the game and getting 12-15 better looks at the basket per game than their opponents, a tremendous advantage. Then when you consider the pace factor is on the low end, if the Orange get even five more shots on the opponent, it's simply too much to overcome especially if the opponent winds up trailing and then has to put Syracuse on the line. Miami shot just 40 times, and went to the FT line just 4 times. Does everyone remember how the Hokies shot just three free throws against the Hurricanes in Coral Gables? Well Miami shot four on the road in Syracuse. If we can get home cooking like that tonight, maybe there'd be a slim chance we could shoot well enough to keep it close, but Syracuse has out-shot its opponents by 110 at the free-throw line. That's almost eight extra tries a game. This is the exact style of game that the Hokies seem incapable of playing right now. A slow game that requires some modicum of patience and execution in the half court. All season long, I've been a little critical of how early in the shot clock guys were shooting. Even though the percentage from three point range has been fantastic, it hasn't been enough to win games because the turnover bug and poor clock management, while ceding control of the tempo. Syracuse has the game-plan and the personnel to dismantle the Hokies in the same fashion that VCU did in Richmond.

Syracuse has one volume shooter that we have to hope has a a poor night in C.J. Fair. The 6'8" senior swingman returned to Syracuse to make another championship run and be the alpha guy. So far he's scoring 17.2 points per game but he's on pace to blow way past last year's turnover total of 63, as he already has 44 and might reach 100. When you look at the rest of the team's turnover totals, the 44 is stark in comparison to the rest of team with their modest transgressions. Nobody else on the team's turnovers number greater than 17. It appears C.J. Fair is feeling himself a little bit too much this year. All his percentages are down, though his minutes are up at 35.4. Among teammates, only Tyler Ennis has averaged more than 30 minutes a game. Last year Fair was a versatile defender, averaging over a steal and a block per game, but this year the blocks are way down and he's only on pace to steal the same number of balls. I think part of the game plan needs to be making Fair feel comfortable shooting the ball from all the wrong spots. Slack off of him in the 15-20 foot area and give hm a peek. Let him have the three point shot above the break, but guard the corners ferociously. The Cassell's sight lines can be confusing to even  the best visiting shooters, and C.J. Fair is a below average shooter from three at 26.8%.

The Syracuse front-line is a rotation of role players, none of whom gets more than 21 minutes. Rakeem Christmas (6'9, 250) and DaJuan Coleman (6'9, 280) can clear out significant space, and Baye Mousse Keita and Michael Gbinje give Syracuse more rangy, athletic defenders to help them stay fresh on the perimeter. The Hokies will need to go to Cadarian Raines for this one. Joey Van Zegeren and Trevor Thompson are veritable stick figures next to the two Syracuse post players.

Coming off of the bench in the earlier part of the year and now sometimes starting for Syracuse is sophomore forward Jerami Grant. Brother of Notre Dame's Jerian, son of Harvey, nephew of Horace. He has Horace's height, but Harvey's build. He is the first man off the bench, and plays the third most minutes on the team. When he's on the floor, the Orange can go 6'8" or taller at four positions, making the zone impossible to navigate cleanly. The Dematha high school product hit a huge basket to pull Syracuse within a point before they ran past a very game, but ultimately out-manned Hurricane squad late in Saturday's game. He is a big part of the offense in the minutes he gets, and he is the team's leading rebounder at 5.8 per game.

The Hokies enter this game once again with injuries a concern. Redshirt sophomore guard Adam Smith is a "longshot" to play, according to Coach James Johnson. Junior forward C.J. Barksdale is also nursing injuries in each leg, with problems in his left ankle and his right knee. And now he and Marshall Wood both have the flu. If Barksdale plays, his minutes will likely be rationed. The Hokies have had a lot of missed time from key players, especially if you factor Marquis Rankin into the mix. I don't count Rankin, but the points Johnson has been making in the press about not being able to truly assess his own club due to the continued misfortunes are valid ones. That said, I can't allow that to interfere with my various disappointments in some of the problems the Hokies are having on the court. Things that are under their control, but continue to plague them. And the issues that the Hokies have: not taking care of the ball, impatient shot selection, uncreative sets, lack of ball movement, and allergy to working inside-out all play right into the Syracuse spider web of a zone. Everything that VCU is to full court pressure, Syracuse is every bit VCU's counterpart in the 2-3 zone.

I am simply not optimistic about the Hokies chances this game, but the fact that the Hokies defeated a very deliberate team a month ago in the ACC opener at Miami, leaves the door open just a crack.Whatever the outcome tonight, I expect it to be a sloppy affair early. With the weather so bone-chilling, coming out in a basketball uniform is always a weird feeling, particularly in a drafty barn like the Cassell. Sometimes it takes a few minutes before players can get warmed up. The Hokies have a few players who have seen the Syracuse zone before as Eddie, Raines, and Barksdale all played Syracuse in a 69-58 early season-loss in New York city in 2011. Eddie scored 17 points in the loss. The Hokies led at halftime that game, and maintained the lead until the 13:29 mark when a Victor Davila dunk (which I presume was rewarded in a deal with the devil, with the game's outcome as the devil's bounty, it's the only explanation) gave the Hokies a 42-39 lead. To the Hokies' credit, the team they faced that night had three first round NBA draft choices on it in Dion Waiters, Michael Carter-Williams, Fab Melo, and more than likely a fourth if C.J. Fair manages not to obliterate his own draft stock by struggling with turnovers and shot selection.

The game is at Cassell Coliseum, with tip-off scheduled for shortly after 9pm. As for TV, it's listed on ESPN3, but more likely than not if you live anywhere between North Carolina and Baltimore you can see it on a local channel that doubles for an ACC Network. In the Northern Virginia/Washington Metro Area, where I am at, the game is on MyTV (Formerly DC20). Tonight really feels like college basketball season begins, as the football season just ended in spectacular fashion last night. And to heighten that sentiment, the schedule-makers have gifted us with two really interesting games from other leagues as well: #3 Ohio State is visiting #5 Michigan State, and #7 Baylor is playing at #9 Iowa State. In ACC action, #16 Duke faces Georgia Tech at home and NC St travels to Notre Dame. It's definitely a good night to stay out of the cold and get a good look at a lot of teams.

Hopefully, enough VT students want to experience the novelty that is Syracuse hoops and come out to support the Hokies tonight. However, it's still break, so unfortunately a home game of this magnitude is almost wasted. To all who brave the elements to make it out to the game, you are much stronger than I am, as it is going to be frigid. Though I will proudly say that once upon a time I did regularly run across Washington Street to the Cassell in frigid weather in just a t-shirt and sweatpants; on my way from Pritchard  to support the team during the Metro Conference and early A-10 days. It was the least I could do, given the proximity.

The team may not be playing as well as we'd all like, but I've seen worse. Hopefully, once the student body returns the team can begin to turn around the dreadful attendance numbers that Niemo alluded to in his mid-season report card over on TechHoops.com. I urge you read it, as it outlines in simple terms the amount of money our basketball team is hemorrhaging as it operates in this limbo state between athletic directors, as well as offering good analysis on the season to date. This is not yet a call for James Johnson's job in this space, as Niemo seems to be foreshadowing in his, because I believe in watching the development in a coach's first set of recruits. Johnson hasn't been given enough time just yet to be judged fairly, but the early return on this recruiting class is that it's underrated. So that's a check in the positive column for Coach Johnson. To his detriment, he hasn't been able to impact the style of play he promised upon taking the job. We were promised up-tempo, and the team is anything but, often erring towards deliberate. And the team is as clueless as ever in the half-court. With the losses we've suffered, this team is a definite disappointment to date. The team should be 11-2 or 10-3 at worst. Losses to USC-Upstate and UNC-Greensboro at home are just unacceptable if you want your program to be taken seriously. You simply cannot have that low of a floor in your quality of play, no matter how high your ceiling is, and the Hokies have a limited ceiling to start with. It's going to take a gargantuan effort in a weak ACC to make the NIT tournament, with the NCAA eligibility pretty much off the table with the bad RPI losses. But having the defined goal of shooting for the NIT still attainable, it still gives us all something to focus on as the season progresses from here. Do I sound like Ron Jaworski telling you that this NFL game between Tampa Bay and Cleveland is really critical and interesting and you should stay tuned? Sadly, yes I do.

Try to have fun watching the game tonight, but if you've recently had a root canal, maybe you find something else to do instead. I plan on posting some on Twitter during the game @Gobbler Country. As always, mi Cassell es su Cassell.

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