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For Syracuse vs. Arizona State, watch the zone

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Bobby Hurley lauded Pac-12 defenses zoning them for late-season struggles the Sun Devils faced. None did it better than Washington, and Mike Hopkins’ group didn’t run nearly as efficient of a defense as Jim Boeheim’s did this year.

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

“Downhill driving,” is a term you’ve likely heard putted around ahead of the Syracuse Orange vs. Arizona State Sun Devils game; a captivating First Four matchup.

To me, it depicts both Paschal Chukwu cutting off drivers within five feet, as well as Chukwu softly smacking his thigh with his goggles upon learning he’d picked up another foul.

As the Orange begin another improbable appearance in the NCAA Tournament, perhaps gifted by no play more than this one in SU’s lone win against an AP-ranked team in 2017-18, no question lingers more over a team that almost cost itself a trip here by landing in foul trouble. Faced with a team that routinely puts its heads down and drives to the interior, that question presents itself once more.

The Sun Devils open a slight (-1.5) favorite in Dayton against Syracuse. The matchup will determine the 11-seed in the Midwest region, who’ll play TCU in round one. They tip-off just after 9 p.m. EST.

While SU benefited from strength of schedule, road Q1 wins and its sturdy defense on the way here, Arizona State was able to cancel out its lackluster finish with a scorching 12-0 start that positioned them as the last remaining unbeaten to start the season. They even knocked off then-No. 2 and now-No.1 seed Kansas on the road along with Xavier.

The Sun Devils then rode a .500 wave through January, lost four of five to close the season, and exited the Pac-12 Tournament quietly in a 12-point loss to Colorado.

Luckily for them, and Syracuse to some degree (closed 3-5), the stretch run isn’t a point of consideration by the selection committee anymore. Whether you want to believe it or not, it also helps that neither squad had personnel indicted in the FBI’s round-ups earlier this season.

Louisville, USC and Oklahoma State were all involved in the federal investigation into NCAA basketball bribery and all were left out of the tourney while sitting on the bubble, but the committee denied it was considered as part of the selection process.

The Cardinals were particularly surprising after they knocked off Florida State in the ACC Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: Pac-12 Conference Tournament - Arizona State vs Colorado Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

“We look at games in November and December as much as February and March if they are against the same caliber of teams,” committee chair Bruce Rasmussen said (via NCAA.com).

So for some, these two broil as controversial picks while the NIT kicked off with the bubble’s losers beginning their runs as top seeds, and the NCAA bracket finalizes with this game. Though it’s far from the significant pair of 16-seeds facing off elsewhere in the first four, Texas Southern and North Carolina Central entered as the only HBCU in the tournament’s entire field so only one will get into the first round.

That considered, math and winning percentages don’t look so bad.

What may look daunting for Syracuse is that Arizona State’s offense generated the 21st-most free throw attempts in all of college basketball this season, which could be problematic for a team essentially boasting five rotation players. ASU opponents have committed 672 personal fouls over 31 games, that’s 21.7 per game which shuffles down to over four per game between five players.

That’s dangerous territory for SU. With Tyus Battle, Frank Howard and Oshae Brissett producing nearly the entirety of the offense and Marek Dolezaj and Chukwu standing inside as crucial size for the zone to operate, Jim Boeheim can’t afford for anyone to be sitting with fouls.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-North Carolina vs Syracuse Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina’s one of the best teams in the country, but gained a substantial advantage by knocking Chukwu out of their ACC Tournament game early. Afterward, Theo Pinson said that Syracuse’s propensity to contest every shot inside opened opportunities to knock him out of the game.

SU has a 95.5 defensive rating with Chukwu on the floor and that’s up to 96.1 when Bourama Sidibe’s playing in his place. Though there is a caveat on that number, since knee tendinitis hobbled Sidibe’s effectiveness on the floor. But for a team that doesn’t score a ton, even that difference could be substantial.

For Arizona State, Tra Holder boasts a 114 offensive rating and 4.9 offensive box-plus minus (Marvin Bagley 7.3, by comparison) and leads Arizona St.’s offense at over 18 points per game. He’s a penetrating force, with a three-point shot he utilizes frequently, but has seen come-and-go in terms of efficiency through his four seasons (32 percent this year).

Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley discussed zoning tactics on Tuesday as a reason Arizona State’s offense and Holder (dropped roughly five points off his scoring average in league play) regressed late in the season. Syracuse’s adjusted (KenPom) defensive rating playing the 2-3 was 94.5 points per 100 possessions this year, 11th in the NCAA.

The best Pac-12 defense was Washington’s (word to Mike Hopkins) which was only 63rd in the country at 99.3. They run a variation of the Boeheim zone, and beat Arizona St. 68-64. However, they also didn’t execute it nearly as efficiently as SU does.

It may not be a stretch to say this game comes down to whether Chukwu can defend the paint with or without fouling. Hopefully he’s learned a little something from the UNC debacle just a week ago.