The Syracuse Orange (11-2) are set to host the Virginia Tech Hokies (11-2) on New Years Eve as conference play gets underway. Syracuse is coming off a win against Eastern Michigan and navigated the non-conference portion of its schedule relatively unscathed. Still, Virginia Tech is one of the best offensive teams in the country that’s sure to test the mettle of the 2-3 zone.
With that in mind we reached out to Jawhar Ali over at Gobbler Country.
TNIAAM: Like Syracuse, Virginia Tech is 11-2 on the year. What have you guys done well to this point?
Jawhar Ali: The Hokies have been a hyper-efficient shooting team, leading the nation in FG% and eFG%, primarily due to their ability to hurt teams from three-point range. With their rapid ball movement and ability to get to the basket, Virginia Tech often catches defenses in mid-rotation and once that happens they usually generate open looks. On the year, Tech is converting on 43.7% of their threes, one of the top 10 rates in the country. Against Syracuse’s zone, it’s very possible that ball and player movement slows down and they have a hard time covering their perimeter attempts as a result. On the flip side, the Hokies are only allowing opponents to shoot 29.4% from three.
The Hokies have also done a very good job of running in transition, which also contrasts Syracuse’s slower pace of play. Even off of made baskets, this is a team that likes to try to beat the other team down the floor, putting a tremendous amount of pressure on opposing defenses. This usually results in free throw attempts, and Virginia Tech seems to get to the free throw line more than the opposition.
TNIAAM: Are turnovers still a point of concern?
JA: Turnovers remain a top concern for this team. As I said earlier, the Hokies love to run in transition and play a frenetic pace, but sometimes they play faster than they can think and make mistakes. It was evident on the road against Kentucky, where they committed a season high 19 turnovers, failing to break the press and consistently made bad decisions. And in Tech’s final non-conference game, they turned it over five times within the first four minutes against a mediocre North Carolina A&T squad. This is a recurring problem that I fully expect to continue through the beginning of conference play. Teams with length will give the Hokies plenty of trouble in this aspect of the game.
TNIAAM: Offensively, VT is one of the best teams in the nation and is actually the best in terms of effective field goal percentage, where can you guys hurt us on that end?
JA: As I explained earlier, the Hokies do most of their damage behind the three-point line and in transition. Since most of their shot attempts are at the rim or a three-pointer, Tech has a high effective FG%. I would expect the Hokies to continue to attack those areas on the floor, which will be necessary to create space against the zone defense. Virginia Tech should try and penetrate the zone and get to the rim early to force Syracuse to defend the entire floor rather than sit at the three-point line, forcing the Hokies to settle for jumpers. Justin Robinson’s passing ability and Chris Clarke’s finishing ability will be crucial for the Hokies’ to have success on offense.
TNIAAM: What should we expect against the zone?
JA: Last season when the Hokies were able to beat ‘Cuse, the Hokies emphasized ball fakes more than anything to move the zone. It was also the first game where they used Chris Clarke as the man in the middle to collapse the zone and either deliver it to a shooter, a big man in the slot along the baseline, or take it himself. Tech had a fairly successful game, shooting just under 50 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three. I would expect the Hokies to try to replicate that method and hopefully that performance.
TNIAAM: How many threes do you expect to see fall?
JA: The Hokies are averaging 9.4 threes a game on 21.5 attempts through 13 games this season. I would expect Syracuse to overplay the long ball because of how deadly the Hokies can be from there so the amount of perimeter attempts should go down. That should open up more opportunities to attack on the interior. However, Virginia Tech has made their fair share of contested threes, so I would not be surprised for them to hit their season average. If I had to call it, I’d play it safe and say they make 8 threes in this one.
TNIAAM: What should Syracuse look to do offensively?
JA: Virginia Tech has little depth in the front court, so teams have had success going into the post or attacking the offensive glass and just wearing the Hokies out. Kerry Blackshear is the Hokies’ only quality big man and you can make the argument he is one of the most critical members of this team. The problem with Blackshear is that he gets into foul trouble, putting the Hokies in a bind because of their lack of size. Then the opposition’s size advantage becomes even more prominent, since they do not have a legitimate threat to stop them from gaining offensive rebounds and scoring in the post. So while Tyus Battle is dominating offensively, if Oshae Brisset can continue to be effective as in the paint and rack up close to 10 boards this game, Syracuse should have a good chance at winning this game.
TNIAAM: Prediction: who wins and why?
JA: This is a really tough one for me to predict. The contrasting styles of the two teams will make for an interesting matchup. Whichever team can control the pace will have the upper hand. Over the last two weeks, Virginia Tech has not played up to their potential, making too many mistakes for an experienced team 13 games into the season. Add in the fact that the Hokies have not won in Syracuse since 1976, it might be a tough matchup in the ACC opener. But if the Hokies can knock down their threes, they always have a chance. I think the Hokies have the edge in overall talent in this one and I do think they make enough shots to outscore Syracuse and get the win.
Be sure to head on over to gobblercountry.com later for our answers as well.
What about you? Who do you think wins and why?