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Syracuse men’s basketball vs. Oklahoma State preview: Five things to watch

Can ‘Cuse get their first P5 win of the season?

Oklahoma State University Cowboys v Syracuse University Orangemen Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

We’re starting to get into the heart of the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball non-conference schedule. While we still don’t have a crystal clear picture of the identity of this year’s team, things are starting to come into focus.

One thing that has crystallized is that Elijah Hughes is absolutely ready for his starring role. Hughes is averaging 17.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5 assists, and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range. Take out the disastrous Virginia game, and all those numbers are considerably higher.

What has really stood out to me is Hughes’s vision and ability to act as a playmaker. He is a much better passer than I ever expected, and he’s willing to do so in nearly every situation. He’s also played under control and looks silky smooth with everything he does on the court. When he gets the ball up top, good things happen almost every time.

Another positive aspect coming into focus is that this team is incredibly unselfish. Syracuse is currently 28th in the country in assists per game... and that includes a game where we scored only 34 points!

This is in stark contrast to last year, where Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett, and Frank Howard would play hero ball seemingly every possession. It was brutal to watch, and seeing this year’s team move the ball side to side, set picks, and move without the ball has been a thing of beauty. It makes it so much harder for defenses to shut us down when we have willing passers from 1-5.

Okay, enough big picture stuff. Let’s take a look at the five things to watch for during the game against Oklahoma State.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 13 Big 12 Conference Championship - Oklahoma State v TCU Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

1. Better competition means less margin for error

Let’s face it. The past few games, Syracuse basketball’s margin for error was fairly high. That’s a good thing for a young team looking for an identity. It gave guys like Joe Girard III, Quincy Guerrier, and Bourama Sidibe a chance to work out some of the kinks against inferior competition.

But now the real test begins. Syracuse basketball has five straight games against Power 5 opponents, starting with Oklahoma State on Wednesday. That game is followed up by either Penn State or Ole Miss. Then it’s Iowa, followed by back-to-back road games against Georgia Tech and Georgetown.

None of these games will be easy. Oklahoma State is 5-0 and plays aggressive man-to-man defense. Georgia Tech trounced the Orange last year and also play tough D. Georgetown beat Texas and could have beaten Duke if not for some questionable calls in pivotal moments. Penn State is also 5-0, including a win on the road at Georgetown and a win over the same Bucknell team we just beat.

Syracuse basketball’s young guys need to step up if we are going to make it through this stretch with a decent record. If we play how we did against Virginia, a loss in any or all of these games is possible.

Virginia v Syracuse Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

2. Can Joe Girard hang with elite athletes?

Joe has looked stellar against Colgate, Seattle, Cornell, and Bucknell. And to be fair, there have been some very good guards that he’s played against already. But now the competition gets tougher, and it starts with Oklahoma State.

Don’t be surprised to see OKSU guards Lindsey Waters and Isaac Likekele hound Girard all over the court and challenge him at every turn. They know Girard is a freshman, and they are going to want to test his handle and decision making.

How Joe responds to this will have a major impact on the game, and the season for Syracuse basketball. If he can continue to be aggressive but under control and look to defer to his teammates as much or more than he shoots, the trajectory of this season soars. If he is suffocated like against Virginia, or tries to take over games like he did in high school, things could get ugly.

From what I’ve seen, Joe has the poise to do the former instead of the latter.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 06 Virginia at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

3. Syracuse vs. tight defense

It’s not just Girard that is going to see tight defense moving forward. These last four games, defense has not been a strong point for the opposition. Outside of Cornell’s genius 2-1-2 matchup zone that befuddled the Orange for a stretch, the resistance hasn’t been that stout.

That trend will not continue against Oklahoma State and beyond. The upcoming five game gauntlet is against defenses that are fast, aggressive, and dialed in. Oklahoma State gives up just 60 points per game. Same with Penn State. Georgetown gives up a lot of points, but also has a ton of size and skill that will disrupt the Orange at every turn. We know what Georgia Tech’s defense can do the Orange.

If the past few seasons are any indication, or the Virginia game to start this year for that matter, Syracuse will struggle against tight defense. Syracuse has recruited finesse players for the past several decades. We don’t have a Derrick Coleman, Rony Seikaly, or Etan Thomas that can push people around on the interior. We’re a team of long, lanky athletes who are fast, but not necessarily physical.

To be successful over the next five games, Syracuse basketball is going to need to step up the screen game, continue to improve the off-ball movement, get out in transition before defenses can set up, and grab some offensive rebounds. If those things happen, we will win all these games. That’s a pretty big if, however.

Cornell v Syracuse Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

4. Does Sidibe’s solid play continue?

Bourama Sidibe is having a breakout early season. Previously, I said if he could give us six points, eight rebounds, and 20 minutes per game, I would take that all day. Right now, he’s at 7.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 19 minutes a contest.

He doesn’t need to light the world on fire. He needs to play consistent and under control. And so far, he absolutely has. Every game it seems like it’s clicking a bit more for him. Yes, he still makes mistakes, but now he is making up for them on the other end. His footwork looks light years improved from last year, as does his quickness and first step.

If he can continue to play like this and slowly improve, he is going to be a force down low by the end of the season. I don’t think he’ll ever be a dominant center, but he will keep defenses honest and force them to cover him inside, opening up so many options for his teammates.

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

5. Defense wins championships

I talked about the upcoming opposing defenses we’ll face, but what about Syracuse’s own vaunted zone? So far, so good this season. Right now, Syracuse basketball ranks 10th in the country in points allowed. We’re also 21st in adjusted defensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions, weighted by opponents faced) according to KenPom.

The defense is way ahead of schedule. Will it continue to hold up against better competition is the question? That is going to be a challenge, especially at the top of the zone. Although Girard and Buddy Boeheim have looked solid recently, their lack of foot speed is a concern. We saw what Kihei Clark was able to do in the Virginia game, getting in the paint seemingly at will.

I think our defense could struggle over the next few games against faster guards. How our back line and guards react to the inevitable penetration will be the key. Do they collapse and leave wide open shooters or a vulnerable low post, or do they rotate effectively and close out to challenge everything?

We’ll find out soon, with our next real test against Oklahoma State on Wednesday. Stay tuned for full game coverage.