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Syracuse vs. Duke preview: What to watch for

Syracuse is 3-2 in its last five games against Duke.

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

The Syracuse Orange will take on the No. 1 Duke Blue Devils on Saturday evening in a game that promises to break the on campus attendance record. The Blue Devils will be looking to avenge its overtime loss to the Orange from earlier this season. Syracuse, meanwhile, will look to continue to build its résumé following Wednesday’s victory over the 18th-ranked Louisville Cardinals.

Here’s what to watch for:

Zion Williamson‘s absence

Chances are that you’ve heard by now but in case you haven’t: Williamson went down with a knee sprain on Wednesday night in Duke’s matchup with the North Carolina Tar Heels. On a night of considerable promise in which college basketball would be handed the proverbial spotlight as it draws closer to the NCAA tournament, the night ended a disappointment due to the sport’s largest draw suffering an injury.

Williamson won’t play tomorrow, per Stadium’s Jeff Goodman.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Duke struggled against North Carolina following the injury and ultimately lost by 16 points at home. The Blue Devils had no answer on the interior as Tar Heel forwards Luke Maye and Garrison Brooks combined for 44 points and 23 rebounds.

Syracuse doesn’t pose nearly as large of a threat on the interior as UNC had, but sophomore Oshae Brissett has a chance to step up and be a difference-maker for the Orange. The last time Syracuse and Duke faced off, Brissett totaled 14 points on an inefficient 5-16 shooting and pulled down 8 rebounds.

Now, Brissett won’t have to fear chase-down blocks like this on on Saturday night:

Who plays point guard for the Orange?

The Syracuse offense was much more efficient with Tyus Battle running the point and Frank Howard on the sidelines on Wednesday night against Louisville. Howard played just 11 minutes and dished out just one assist in a game that Syracuse was clicking as well as it has had in a couple weeks.

Howard has struggled to beat defenders and work his way into the paint so far this season. This has become problematic for the Orange as the team relies on him to make plays and put others in positions to score. Without Howard bringing his greatest offensive attribute to the table, it stands to reason that Syracuse could benefit from leaving the ball in Battle’s hands more often moving forward.

In his press conference following Wednesday night’s game, head coach Jim Boeheim suggested that Howard may play more off the ball against Duke. Howard has been SU’s second best three-point shooting threat in conference play at 36.8 percent clip. Perhaps a change of role could benefit the senior as it attempts to turn his season around.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Detroit Practice Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Duke’s three-point shooting woes

As Ken Pomeroy points out, three-point shooting is random game-to-game, but that doesn’t mean we won’t talk about it!

Syracuse opponents are shooting just 31.8 percent from three against the 2-3 zone. Even if we acknowledge there is a fair amount of luck in the form of shooting variance baked into that number, the claim stands that the Orange have defended the three-point line well so far this season.

On the other hand, Duke has failed to eclipse 31 percent shooting beyond the arc in 12 of its last 15 games. That includes last game against the Orange in which the Blue Devils shot 20.9 percent on 43 attempts in the loss.

Syracuse should likely pack it in on defense and focus on taking away driving lanes once again on Saturday. RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish are play-making threats, but the Orange can neutralize the threat by packing its defense in tight. If Williamson can’t go, Barrett will be Duke’s only three-point shooter that is over 35 percent for the season — he’s shooting 35.9 percent.

St. Bonaventure at Syracuse Basketball Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Buddy Boeheim’s role

Buddy played just six minutes the last time Syracuse and Duke squared off. The pace and the physicality of that game may have proved to be too much for Buddy to handle at the time. Since then, he has settled in to be more comfortable with the ball in his hands — especially when teams sell out on his shot and he can use a pump fake to get by his defender.

Buddy has also since fully-established himself as a three-point sniper as he is currently sits at a 43.9 percent clip (can we still call that #OnBrand?). When Battle is running point guard, Buddy will likely see the floor more than he had in the first matchup between the two teams. However, at the pace that this game will be played at, it’s likely that Syracuse is going to need to keep a strong secondary ball handler on the floor at all times. Some may wonder if Syracuse has a strong secondary ball handler at this point — and it does: in Howard.

Paschal Chukwu’s motor

I’m not one to question someone’s motivation to play. I will, however, state the obvious: there are games that Chukwu looks more locked in than others. Last time out against the Blue Devils, Chukwu played phenomenal defense and totaled 10 points and 18 rebounds in 32 minutes. Last game against Louisville, he put up 2 points and 3 rebounds in 16 minutes. Which Chukwu will show up on Saturday?

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

The on-campus attendance record

Syracuse currently holds college basketball’s on-campus attendance record at 35,446. The Orange figure to break its own record “by at least eight”, according to Saturday’s contest is sold out and has been for weeks. The game is an Orange-out.