The Syracuse Orange are back in the NCAA Tournament. But before we get to the first round, we need to take care of business in the First Four, in a matchup with the Arizona State Sun Devils. ASU started hot this year, winning 12 straight, but faded in Pac-12 play. W didn’t necessarily fade at the end, but did finish the regular season 2-4 for the sixth straight year.
Since we don’t face Arizona State all that often (just twice to-date), we wanted to learn a bit more about the Sun Devils from a source closer to the program. So we asked Jordan Kaye over at SB Nation’s House of Sparky to tell us all we needed to know about ASU. We answered some questions over there as well.
How relieved were Sun Devils fans to hear they’d made the field? How likely did it seem heading into Selection Sunday?
After starting the season 12-0, most fans, and experts, had ASU already penciled into the tournament. Then, when it finished ninth in a mediocre Pac-12, most just assumed the Devils would be accepting a NIT bid, especially since a lot of brackets had them as a first four out team. So, when their name showed up on that awful selection show, a lot of people in Tempe were genuinely shocked, and obviously excited that seniors Kodi Justice and Tra Holder get to experience the tourney.
Any lingering animosity from the fan base after our last NCAA Tournament meeting? Or does that game not even register?
No, that game is an afterthought to most people -- I think they know that Syracuse was the better team. I didn’t really see anyone tweeting about the fact that this was a NCAA Tournament rematch, so we tweeted out something and got two reactions: 1. That ASU lost. 2. That James Harden had a tough night (10 points on 2-10 shooting).
What’s made the zone such a struggle for this Arizona State team? Smaller guards, or is there more to it than that?
The first teams that started throwing the zone look at Arizona State were Longwood and Pacific at the end of the non-conference slate. Early on, the Devils could just shoot those teams back into playing man-v-man. Pac-12 teams started doing the same to ASU and executed it much better, and those shots that the Devils kept shooting to try and get their opponents back into man became much deeper and more contested. Their guards are forcing 3s and their bigs are having trouble operating down low when the get double-teamed.
Obviously, ASU was really clicking at the start of the year -- what was the biggest part of that hot early stretch, and what was the biggest reason for the limp toward the finish?
I think teams really started to figure out ASU after the non-conference season. Part of that is showing it a zone defense and part of that is that the Devils got everyone’s best game early in Pac-12 play. The other thing that happened was that ASU wasn’t quite killing teams from beyond the arc. It beat Xavier and Kansas by hitting on 48 and 50 percent of its 3s, respectively. In the Devils last two games, they shot 37 and 40 percent from deep.
Do you feel like there’s one player that can come from out of nowhere and go off from three against the Orange? We have a habit of letting that happen.
Oh, man, there’s a few guys on ASU that can, and have, done that this season -- most noticeably ASU’s trio of senior guards Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice. But, if I’m just picking one guy, it has to be Evans. He’s never seen a shot that he didn’t think he could make, and he takes a lot of them. Evans has taken 50 more 3-pointers (244) than any other player on ASU and when he knocks down one, a few more usually follow.
Romello White and De’Quon Lake are your biggest regular rotation players. Do you think their size compared to SU’s cause any problems for either team in the paint? What do they do best on the offensive and defensive ends, respectively?
I think the Orange definitely have the size advantage in the paint with Chukwu, Dolezaj and Brissett. Whiten and Lake have struggled going up against guys that are taller than them, mainly just getting shots around the rim from falling, but also on the defensive end. Both have had games this season where they’ll pick up a barrage of fouls in just a few minutes and hardly get back on the court.
What role will pace play in this game? Arizona State is one of the country’s most up-tempo teams according to KenPom, while the Orange are... not (342nd).
Pace is going to critical, and I believe that whatever team can really dictate there’s will be who wins. ASU wants to run and get a ton of points in transition. When it does that, it can throw a ton of points on the scoreboard in a very little amount of time.
Oregon, who is also towards the bottom of that list, was probably the first team that really tried to combat that. The Ducks would milk that shot clock, grab an offensive rebound and then milk it again. ASU kept trying to take its quick shots, but couldn’t get out in transition like it wanted. The Ducks ended up taking 19 more shots from the field in that game, which is a very good sign for Syracuse.
Which Syracuse player concerns you most?
Definitely Tyus Battle, and for a few reasons. He gets to the line quite often, and I have a feeling that most of those are going to come at the hands of ASU’s big men. They can get into foul trouble quick, and with a guard that can drive like battle, he may be able to take a few of ASU’s forewords out of the game. Also, ASU’s guards aren’t very tall. It will be interesting to see how they manage to guard and get by Battle.
Thoughts on Jim Boeheim?
Just watching from afar on some ESPN games and in the tournament, he reminds me a lot of Hurley in terms of their personalities. Both are very fiery and energetic and seem to have their players backs no matter what. But, unlike Hurley, I have watched Boeheim coach in March quite a lot. He knows how to get teams ready for win or go home matchups and seems to fare very well when he’s the underdog.
Prediction time: What happens in this one, and what’s the final score?
ASU has not looked good in the last three months and it has not been able to crack the zone this season. For that all to change on Wednesday, it would take an unbelievable performance from ASU. I think the zone will end up being too much for the Devils and if Syracuse can really slow down their offense, they don’t have much of a chance. I see Syracuse winning by six.