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Syracuse men’s basketball vs. Georgia Tech preview: 5 things to watch for

Time to get that first ACC win.

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

One quarter of the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball season is already in the books. And although it hasn’t been pretty thus far, we soldier on.

On Saturday, SU faces the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the Orange’s fourth straight matchup against a P5 opponent. Considering how the last three have gone, there’s certainly cause for concern that this game could end in similar fashion.

Even for a very young team, the Orange have under-performed this year. We knew there would be growing pains, but so far there has been a lot of pain and not so much growth. Can we turn things around against a pesky Georgia Tech team?

Let’s take a look at five of the keys to the game and what to watch for.

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

1. Ball movement and setting screens on offense

One of the few positives of the offense this season has been an increased amount of movement off the ball. Players are running and trying to get open. The problem is that it isn’t really working. Most of the time the defense is easily able to adjust and there’s a lot of wasted energy leading to an awkward or half-contested shot.

One solution to that is for Syracuse to set more screens, and not just on-ball screens. When we had guys like Trevor Cooney or Andy Rautins, we ran them off a seemingly endless number of screens each game to get them open. It didn’t always work, but more often than not it led to a defense scrambling to recover, leading to an open shot or a pass to a player in good position to score.

Another option that we saw a bit against Iowa is the double high screen for Elijah Hughes. Running him off of two screens at the top of the key is a great way to start the offense. Not only does it gives Hughes the chance to drive into the paint, it also forces the rest of the defense to collapse, leading to open shots on the perimeter.

2. Let’s get physical, physical

Yep, I just referenced a Olivia Newton-John song. That’s the kind of season it’s been. But truer words were never spoken in relation to this Syracuse basketball squad.

If this team wants to have any chance of competing in the ACC, the physicality needs to be dialed up about 300%. This team isn’t the most athletic that Syracuse has ever had, but that doesn’t mean they can’t play more aggressive.

The lack of hustle I’ve seen from this team is alarming. It seems like the second they go down by more than a handful of points, they’ve already given up. Other than Marek Dolezaj, no one is giving that consistent effort and energy, and everyone on the team has been afraid of contact.

Even a physical specimen like Quincy Guerrier is getting rebounds ripped away from him, losing 50/50 battles, and being stripped far too often by guards. That needs to change. This team needs to play with a fire in their bellies. If they do, they have a chance to be competitive with any team this year. If they don’t, this could end up a historically bad season. This team doesn’t have the talent to be timid or a finesse team.

NCAA Basketball: Colgate at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

3. Make open shots

This is something I’ve been harping on for the past four games. While Syracuse has taken some really ugly shots, we’ve also had a lot of wide open shots that we are just missing. Both Buddy Boeheim and Joe Girard have had wide open looks the past several games, and missed all of them.

For two guys who were supposed to be incredible shooters, that just can’t happen. You certainly didn’t see Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon or Joe Wieskamp struggling to make open shots. If either one had even an inch of space, it was virtually automatic. We need that from Buddy, Joe, and the rest of the team.

4. Play some semblance of defense

The defense these last three games has been abysmal. In transition, we’ve looked like a middle school squad playing against varsity teams. Not one player has done a good job in transition, and it has cost us big.

But it’s not just the transition defense. Even our half court defense has been bad. With Buddy and Joe at the top of the zone, we don’t have the quickness to keep teams out of the paint. With Bourama Sidibe or Marek Dolezaj, we don’t have the defensive anchor in the middle that helps to cover for our flaws at other positions.

We need to get back to the fundamentals. I sincerely hope Jim Boeheim has been drilling footwork, body control, and boxing out into these kids heads, because it is desperately needed. These aren’t some mystical tools or advanced principles. These are the staples of basketball, and the fact that we have looked so inept at these basic fundamentals is a huge reason why we have lost the last three games by double digits.

If we’re going to beat Georgia Tech, we need to have quick feet, quick hands, box out, and stop getting called for stupid fouls due to poor positioning. This is very much a problem with coaching, and hopefully Boeheim is able to make the right adjustments.

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

5. Switch it up

Can we please stop playing Elijah Hughes for 40 minutes every game? I get that he is our best player, but my goodness is it getting old to see one or more players for Syracuse basketball getting so many minutes every single year.

Against Iowa, we were down nearly 20 points with five minutes to go. Did Boeheim really think we still had a chance to win? Why not give Elijah a rest and get another young guy in and give them a chance to play?

If we want any chance of being a decent squad next year, these kids are going to need to develop. There’s a decent chance Elijah Hughes goes pro at the end of the season, and then what happens? Not to mention, if Hughes keeps playing entire games, he’s going to burned out by February. We’ve seen it before, and with this team, that would be a disaster.

Give him a few minutes of rest each half. Give Brycen Goodine more run. Get Robert Braswell into the game if he’s healthy. Play Jesse Edwards more. I mean, it really can’t get much worse. Might as well mix it up.

That’s exactly what happened three seasons ago with the Andrew White and John Gillon team. Boeheim finally switched the lineup and put White at forward to hide his defensive problems, and put Gillon into the starting lineup when Frank Howard struggled. And the team responsed well. The defense was bad, but the offense was great and they started winning games. This team can do the same.

Change is needed. Let’s hope we start to see it against Georgia Tech.