The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team (20-12, 10-8) will look to stay in Charlotte a little longer by defeating the Duke Blue Devils (26-5, 14-4) for the second time this season tonight in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament. It obviously won’t be easy, especially given that this will be a mostly fully-healthy Duke squad — something the Orange haven’t faced this year. Still, there could be opportunities to be had for Jim Boeheim’s team.
In fact, if Syracuse takes advantage of certain situations, then it might just find itself in the ACC Tournament semifinals for the first time ever.
Here are some of the keys for tonight’s game:
With Tyus Battle likely out again, will Syracuse respond?
Word came in late Wednesday that Tyus Battle was a game-time decision to play against Pittsburgh. And when the team hit the court for warmups, the star junior was dressed in sweats and officially ruled out of action. Battle reportedly hurt his tailbone late in the Orange’s loss at Clemson last Saturday. At the time, Battle bounced off the floor and remained on the deck for a period of time before gingerly walking to the bench.
Even though it looked like a painful injury for Battle, it still came as a surprise when Battle missed his first game in his Syracuse career. Going further into the numbers, Battle has played 95 percent of Syracuse’s game the last two seasons. That’s more minutes played than anyone else in the nation. With that distraction and without having their most talented player sidelined, Battle’s teammates responded in the second half by getting past Pittsburgh. Something that shouldn’t be discounted.
Counterpoint: Duke ain’t Pitt.
In his post-game presser, Jim Boeheim said Battle is probably a couple of days away from being healthy enough to play. Can Syracuse score enough to stay close to the Blue Devils? Will Buddy Boeheim and Elijah Hughes step up the way they did Tuesday? How about Frank Howard. The senior played well against the Panthers, but can he run the show against heavily-favored Duke? I’m not sure what the answers are here, but it’s hard to envision the Orange getting past Duke without an effective Tyus Battle playing his usual amount of minutes.
Will Elijah Hughes and Buddy Boeheim continue their offensive output?
Without Battle on Wednesday, Elijah Hughes and Buddy Boeheim went off against the Panthers. Actually, Hughes and Boeheim were fairly quiet in the first half last night, as the Orange went to intermission trailing, 36-30. But in the second half it was a different story, it was the Buddy and Hughes Show.
Buddy ended up with a career-high 20 points, making 3 of his 7 3-point attempts. And more importantly, the freshman ran point guard at times against Pittsburgh, on top of taking the ball to the rim. He wasn’t just waiting for the ball to come to him, Buddy took control unlike he had all season. The freshman looked more like an upperclassman, a huge boon for Syracuse.
Hughes, meanwhile, hit 5 of his 9 deep-ball attempts on his way to 18 crucial points. It was an important performance because Hughes went oh-for-everything against Clemson on Saturday afternoon. As in 0 for 2 from the field for zero points against the Tigers. That was flipped quickly against the Panthers when Hughes actively attacked on offense in attempt to create points at the rim. The second half, though, much like Buddy Boeheim, is where Hughes did his damage. Hughes hit deep shots and helped the Orange cruise to a relatively easy victory.
And if both Hughes and Buddy Boeheim are engaged and creating scoring opportunities for Syracuse, then this team becomes much more difficult to stop. There were plenty of times throughout the course of the year when Battle needed someone else, anyone else, to take the burden off of him. Maybe both shooters are ready to step into that role in a more permanent situation. All of which gives SU a better chance to upset Duke should Battle be ready for...battle.
Oh snap, Paschal Chukwu!
Syracuse out-rebounded the Panthers, 36-34, the first time in three match-ups this season. The small-margin victory on the boards is due in no small part to the play of Paschal Chukwu. The seven-foot-two big man secured nine boards for the Orange, not to mention his adding in seven points and swatting six shots. Early on against the Panthers, Chukwu was called for an offensive foul when he drove to the rim and slammed the ball home. The dunk didn’t count, but the statement was made. Chukwu’s energy and confidence clearly created chaos for Pitt.
What’s interesting is that Chukwu had a double-double of 10 points and 18 rebounds in Syracuse’s win at Duke back in January. Oh by the way, that jaw-dropping performance was against Zion Williamson. In February, Chukwu was less effective in scoring eight points and collecting six boards. But as was the case against the Panthers, when Chukwu establishes his tone early on, he can almost single-handily turn the flow of a game.
How effective will Syracuse’s zone be against Duke?
For all of the talent that Mike Krzyzewski has at his disposable, he doesn’t really have a deep threat this season. As a team, Duke shoots just under 31 percent from the 3-point line for the season. Sophomore Alex O’Connell has proven to be the most efficient, making 38 percent from deep—hitting 5 of 8 from beyond the arc in the Dome last month.
However, during the first meeting between the two in Durham, NC, the Blue Devils missed 34 of their collective 43 3-point attempts against the Orange. O’Connell eventually found success against SU last month, but otherwise, Duke once again struggled from distance.
Can the Orange force the Blue Devils into relying on shooting jump shots, rather than slashing with RJ Barrett or dumping it down to Zion Williamson? If the Syracuse zone plays the way it did against Pittsburgh, especially in the second half, then this game could be interesting.
Will this be a road game for Syracuse?
For most of the first half on Wednesday, it was tough to tell which team, Pittsburgh or Syracuse, had the home-crowd advantage. That question went out the door once the Orange went on a mini-run right before halftime. Even though the ACC tourney is in Charlotte, it’s no surprise to see a healthy contingent of Syracuse fans in the arena cheering on their team.
Still, taking on Duke in the league tournament in North Carolina (Charlotte) is quite the task. Now, there will be fans of the North Carolina Tar Heels (who play Louisville in the game prior) and other ACC teams will also be in the Spectrum Center and will be rooting against the Blue Devils no matter what. But the second Duke goes on an early run, or makes a couple of big shots, the fans will make it clear that Syracuse isn’t in the Dome anymore.
Of course, that didn’t matter much when the Orange took down the Devils in Durham in January. Yet, this time around, we’re talking about a focused, motivated, and mostly fully-healthy Duke squad that has its sights set on an ACC tourney title and a NCAA championship. And its fans have the same expectations. This one could very well feel like a road game for the underdog Orange.