Despite 22 percent of their scoring production fouling out with 6:22 remaining, the Syracuse Orange managed to pull off the upset over the Michigan State Spartans, and now find themselves preparing for the hardest game they have played yet: a rematch against the Duke Blue Devils.
The Orange have used their dominant 2-3 zone to keep themselves within striking distance in their three NCAA Tournament games, and they have relied upon their “big three” (and especially Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett) to make the clutch shots late when it matters most.
So far this formula has worked, as the Orange have made their way into the packed high-seeded sweet 16. However, as we saw on February 24, the Duke is a different kind of monster — one that will need a near-perfect performance from the Orange to be beat.
The Orange were not perfect in their first meeting against the Blue Devils, as they finished the game with just 44 points, (tied for) a season-low for Syracuse. Frank Howard, Tyus Battle, and Oshae Brissett combined for just 29 points on 10-of-39 shooting, which is 20 points fewer than their combined average for the season.
Duke’s zone limited the “big three’s” ability to get to the lane (their bread and butter) and turned the athletic trio into three-point shooters: that plan worked, as they combined for 6-of-25 shooting from deep.
This isn’t a talented roster in terms of three-point shooting, so an extended zone is the perfect way to attack the Orange. However, the improved play of Marek Dolezaj gives Syracuse a unique weapon this time around to counter Duke’s game plan.
In round one of this ACC battle, Syracuse struggled to get the ball to the high post, the point of attack that begins to dismantle the zone. With Dolezaj playing as well as he has all year long, he is now a weapon the Orange can instill confidence in when it comes to making plays out of the middle of the zone.
Dolezaj’s impressive ability to hit a 15-foot jumper, as well as find the open man cutting from the perimeter makes him a lethal weapon to break down the Duke zone. If the Blue Devils get used to Dolezaj’s presence, the Orange can throw Brissett in the middle, giving them a more athletic weapon to use on offense.
When it comes down to it, the Orange are going to need their backcourt of Howard and Battle to score the ball, and that starts with getting out in transition. The Orange need to find easy looks for their dynamic backcourt, and the easiest way to score for this limited roster is to get fast break points.
Well, that didn’t happen when these two teams first met; Syracuse finished with four fast break points, which will doom them once again if it doesn’t improve this Friday. If Howard and Battle can get some easy looks early, they will be able to gain confidence in their perimeter game, making them even harder to guard.
The defense has allowed the Orange to dance their way into the Sweet 16, but it’ll be their offense that determines whether they are “elite” enough to move on—see what I did there?