The Syracuse Orange (18-9, 7-7) are once again fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives and will look to build off its latest victory when the North Carolina Tar Heels (21-7, 10-5) come to the Carrier Dome tonight. The game will air at primetime as part of ESPN’s Wednesday Night Hoops segment. It will be a big game nationally, but an ever bigger game for Syracuse’s resume as it remains in the hunt for an at-large bid.
Syracuse and North Carolina have played each other in some big games, none bigger than in 2016 on college basketball’s grandest stage at the Final Four. This game will have a bit of intrigue for a myriad of factors and for obvious reasons, but it will also be interesting given that North Carolina usually has a significant advantage inside, often dumping it down to the low-block against the 2-3 with a plethora of big men who crash the offensive glass.
This year’s team still rebounds with the best of them, but it’s more perimeter oriented with Joel Berry, Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams, but Luke Maye presents a significant challenge inside while showcasing the ability to stretch the defense with his shooting ability.
Nevertheless, North Carolina has been to back-to-back National Championship games and has returned a great deal of talent from those squads. Now the Tar Heels are riding a five game winning streak into the Carrier Dome in which it will play against the vaunted Syracuse 2-3 zone which ranks No. 10 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.
So what exactly does North Carolina do the prepare against the 2-3 zone leading up to game day?
“Well we put some of the blue squad in those spots but we can’t simulate their length that Syracuse has, we can’t simulate how effective they run and and we can’t simulate how quickly they close out on the shooters,” Roy Williams said on Monday.
Going up against the 2-3 zone can be daunting for teams that haven’t quite seen the activity within the zone as well as the length and athleticism Syracuse has. We’ve heard ‘can’t simulate’ ad naseum but words just don’t quite do the zone justice.
“We do put them in the spots and try to simulate what it is but every team I’ve ever had has been shocked the first several minutes they ever play against it because they think they’re open then ‘oh my gosh the guy is right on my face’ and then think they’re playing zone and all of sudden they trap you in the corner. So it’s just so many different things you have to be prepared for and it’s hard to simulate that in practice if you don’t have that athleticism.”
Roy Williams also noted that he was considering going back to a 15 second shot-clock in practice this week. Expect North Carolina to get out and run, which really isn’t anything new but Roy admitted to getting away from it a bit in the preseason, saying now North Carolina’s fast break is just a “medium fast break.”
Given the implications of a possible win for Syracuse and the game being broadcast on ESPN, there will be plenty of visibility for tonight’s game. A big crowd is expected to be on hand with the chance for Syracuse to break its own attendance record of 27,083 earlier this year against Virginia, which was the largest in college basketball this season.
For North Carolina, Roy admits that the focus won’t be so much on the crowd or the atmosphere, but on the guys on the other team.
“Well it’s like the rest of the league, most places we go we play in front of a big crowd. It’s a little bigger building, a little more wide open, the view that you have behind the backboards and those kind of things,” Roy Williams said, highlighting the challenges of playing in the Carrier Dome. “But you know we play in a lot of big arenas as well, it’s a gym, it’s built for basketball, the crowd is really into it, they’ve beaten us to death a couple of times and we’ve gotten lucky and beaten I think once but it’s not the gym, it’s the guys in the other uniform that beat you.”
Syracuse will look to do just that as it enters into a tough four game stretch beginning tonight. These next four games and the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn will decide Syracuse’s post season fate. It’s very much make or break from here on out.