Virginia Tech (11-2) travels to New York to take on Syracuse (11-2) in what will be each school’s first conference game this season. The Hokies have had recent success in their ACC opener, winning the last two. However, both contests were played in Cassell, while Tech has not won at Syracuse since the first ever meeting between the two teams in 1976.
The Orange have had a few notable results on the road to their 11-2 record. Syracuse battled and emerged victorious against both Maryland (before Justin Jackson got hurt) and Georgetown. However, like the Hokies, the Orange have a “bad” loss to Saint Bonaventure - although it is not as bad of a result as the Hokies’ dismal display against Saint Louis. The Orange were blown out by Kansas in a game where they looked putrid on offense.
For years, Syracuse has given teams trouble with it’s disciplined, persistent 2-3 zone. Through 13 games, the Orange rank 20th in the country in defensive efficiency per KenPom. They are surrendering just 62.7 points per game, a far cry from the Hokies’ scoring average of 91.3 points per. ‘Cuse loves to slow the pace of the game down and make opponents grind through the shot clock, which contributes to lower overall point numbers but this remains a tough defensive unit.
Last season, the Hokies finally cracked the code to break down the Orange’s zone in Blacksburg. They used Chris Clarke as the man in the middle of the zone. Due to Clarke’s versatility and size, he was able to deliver the ball to LeDay on the slot along the baseline, kick it right back out to an open shooter due to the Hokies’ spacing, or take it himself for two points. Buzz and his staff did a masterful job of emphasizing ball fakes to move the zone and create seams to attack. As a result, the Hokies shot nearly 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from behind the arc.
For a team that is as efficient shooting the ball as the Hokies, Syracuse is the king of forcing inefficient and contested shots. Virginia Tech currently converts on 54.5 percent of their shots, while the Orange only allows its opponents to shoot a lowly 38.4 percent, including just 32.4 percent of three point attempts.
But as great as the Hokies have been from the perimeter, this game will be won and lost in the paint. Virginia Tech’s three-point attempt rate actually ranks 171st out of 351 teams. It is not completely off-base to say that the Hokies are a jumpshooting team with their incredible efficiency marks. There just needs to be a little more context to that part of the story. Since the Hokies are scoring on 60.5 percent on their two point attempts – surprise, surprise, the top rate in the country – that has opened up the three. They need to continue to attack the rim and pressure Syracuse into allowing voids to open up in the zone.
I expect Buzz to employ a similar approach to last year’s game, with a greater emphasis on attacking the basket. Hot shooting does not always travel on the road but Virginia Tech still needs to knock down some perimeter shots to be successful on offense. The Hokies have seven players shooting above 40 percent from three. Two or three of those players will need to have big games from downtown to keep Syracuse’s zone honest.
Projected Syracuse Starters:
Tyus Battle - G
Franklin Howard - G
Oshae Brisset - F
Matthew Moyer - F
Paschal Chukwu - C
Syracuse has the clear size advantage in this game. Every starter is listed at 6’4” or above, which could be problematic for a Hokies’ team that plays small, in addition to Kerry Blackshear fouling out of every other game. With three big men on the floor, Syracuse will likely look to go to the block and attack the offensive glass. Blackshear will have to stay disciplined so he does not pick up unnecessary fouls like he did in the first minute of the second half at Kentucky.
The good news for the Hokies is that Syracuse’s scoring is concentrated upon three players. Tyus Battle, Oshae Brisset, and Franklin Howard combine for 70 percent of the Orange’s point production. Because nearly all of their scoring comes from this trio of players, Syracuse is predictable to a certain extent. As a result, they only shoot 42.8 percent from the field which simply will not cut it against Virginia Tech. They also do not take enough three point attempts to offset the decrease in efficiency to keep their point totals up.
Tyus Battle has been superb for Syracuse this year, which they needed him to be following the departures of Andrew Gillon and Tyler Lydon. He takes a whopping 16 shots per game, so it’s no wonder he averages 20.1 points per game. However, Battle is a bit of a chucker. He is only shooting 42.3 percent which brings down Syracuse’s overall efficiency numbers. Battle can hit the three ball, but he has not been doing so regularly on 34.4 percent shooting from behind the arc, with many of those looks being contested.
The two players that could give the Hokies the most trouble are Oshae Brisset and Paschal Chukwu. Brisset is a freshman that has provided a major spark to this Syracuse team, averaging 15.2 points and 10 boards a game. He could give the Hokies problems down low if they fail to box out on the defensive glass. In addition, Brisset has the ability to challenge ball handlers on the perimeter with his athleticism as well. Chukwu is a 7’2” behemoth at center for Syracuse, who will make life difficult in the paint for Virgnia Tech. He is also adept at drawing fouls, which could spell trouble for Kerry Blackshear. The Orange rebounds nearly 40% of their missed shots, so the emphasis has to be on crashing the defensive glass to help out Blackshear against the size of Syracuse.
Junior guard Franklin Howard, the primary playmaker for Syracuse, is averaging 6.2 assists per game this season. He has the ability to drive past his defender and find the open man once the help arrives. Howard himself is no slouch in the scoring department, matching Brisset’s 15.2 points per game average.
As a whole, Syracuse is not very dangerous on the offensive end and has struggled against some mediocre defenses. They should not scare this Hokies’ team. But in the ACC, nothing is a given, and the Hokies will need to stay focused and limit their communication errors on the road in a hostile environment.
The Hokies have two main issues that will hurt them at various points in the year. One has already been discussed, and that is their size disadvantage against nearly every team in the conference. The other is their turnover differential. Virginia Tech has spurts in a game where they cannot hold onto the ball and the other team makes a run because of that. Currently, Tech turns it over on 15.9 percent of their possessions. Not terrible, but not great either. Syracuse has been excellent this year forcing turnovers, as their opponents have given up the rock on 18.5 percent of their possessions.
Conference play is here in the college basketball sphere, and we were already treated to some great games yesterday. Florida State and Duke battled it out in a high scoring game and two Top 12 teams in Oklahoma and TCU did the same. I think this game has the potential to be just as good. The Hokies have the pieces to break down Syracuse defensively, and I don’t think Syracuse’s offense is potent enough to be able to outscore Virginia Tech in a shootout. If the Hokies’ shooting shows up on the road and they don’t turn the ball over, they win.
Hokies in a close one, 76-74.
Tip-off: 6 PM EST
Location: Carrier Dome