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Syracuse basketball: Atlantic Coast slate begins with Virginia Tech

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The Hokies come to the Carrier Dome this season but pose an even bigger threat than last year’s VT squad that dismantled the 2016-17 Orange.

NCAA Basketball: St. Bonaventure at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlantic Coast Conference rarely hands a break. The competition gets stiffer yearly, and the depth dives further down the standings. The Orange will see four ranked teams (so far) through their schedule, and the Virginia Tech Hokies (not ranked, but receiving 22 votes in the USA Today Coaches Poll) pose a challenge as tall as any of them. Even in the Carrier Dome.

To put it in perspective, when last season concluded, 10 ACC teams sat in the top 50 of Ken Pomeroy’s analytic-driven rankings. Two in the top 10. Now Virginia, Duke and North Carolina are all positioned in the top eight, with 10 teams among the top 49. No. 49, guess who? The Syracuse Orange.

Virginia Tech’s offensive numbers through the team’s through the team’s 11-2 non-conference slate are gaudy. Jim Boeheim’s eyes likely melted comparing the percentages to Syracuse’s horrific offensive start through 13 games.

NCAA Basketball: St. Bonaventure at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

No team in in Division I shoots a higher percentage from the field at 54.5 percent, and that’s two whole points above No. 2 TCU (52.7). Tech scores 91.3 points per game (sixth), has a plus-21 scoring differential per game, generates the 15th-most free throws (337) and boasts the fourth-best three-point percentage at 43.7. That’s on over 21 attempts per night.

The production is spread out too, as five players score in the double figures. The Hokies’ two leading scorers, Ahmed Hill and Justin Bibbs, both shoot above 65 percent from two and above 44 percent from three. Four of the team’s five leading scorers unload more than two three-point attempts per game.

Earlier this season, Jim Boeheim notably said that teams love to shoot threes against the 2-3 Syracuse zone. But that limits free throw attempts. Virginia Tech has the best of both worlds. On top of that, VT is top-50 in defensive rebounding and limiting opponent offensive rebounds, the two greatest strengths of this Orange team.

All that numbers soup doesn’t predict a blowout though. As always, the home/road factor means the world in college hoops and the Hokies have not replicated their home dominance outside of the Cassell Coliseum. Then-No. 8 Kentucky beat them at Rupp Arena. Mississippi took them to overtime, losing 83-80. Saint Louis beat Virginia Tech at Madison Square Garden. Virginia Tech’s lone clean “road” contest was its other MSG game, a 103-79 win over Mike Hopkins’s Washington squad.

NCAA Basketball: No.Carolina A&T at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

Tyus Battle (surprise) is definitively the main factor of hope for the Orange. He has posted 20 or more points in five of Syracuse’s last seven games, with SU going 4-1 in those games (the lone loss to Kansas). He’s regressed to 10-of-33 shooting between the Bonnies loss and the win over Eastern Michigan. But in terms of pure scoring he has been reliable. He’ll still be the most proficient scorer om the court Sunday.

Paschal Chukwu seems to be settling into a groove as well. Boeheim said he is indeed a good free throw shooter, and always has been, after his 9-of-11 performance at the line against the Eagles. He’s taking on a humongous load of minutes with Bourama Sidibe on the verge of a medical redshirt, but has handled them incredibly well.

Over the last five games he’s averaging 32 minutes. Before that he never even reached 32 minutes in a game this season. In all five he blocked three or more shots and he hauled in an average of 6.6 rebounds, which supersedes his season average of six.

Somehow, someway Chukwu is hitting his stride through his greatest workload, and above it all is shooting an incredible 70.6 percent on free throws. Against a Virginia Tech team that starts its offense driving to the rim and kicks to the perimeter from there, he’ll be the x-factor.

Speaking of Sidibe, Boeheim said on Wednesday that today the team would try out Sidibe at practice. If he did well enough, he said he’d give Sidibe a shot at playing against the Hokies. But if not, he will not play, period. If the Orange want to possibly medically redshirt him, he’s already right on the edge of the limit of 30 percent of a team’s season played that he cannot surpass.

Boeheim made it clear, if Sidibe can’t play, he won’t from here on out. Sunday could be the decision day on that front.