All the Syracuse Orange needed to do in order to ensure potential disaster on Selection Sunday — two weeks away — was another quadrant three loss against Wake Forest (191st in NET). But as they’ve done since ACC play began, aside from the Georgia Tech loss, the Orange took care of business in a 79-54 drubbing of Wake Forest.
Those wins against the likes of Boston College, Pittsburgh and Miami ensured SU wouldn’t pair too much baggage alongside disappointing non-conference losses to Old Dominion, Oregon and Connecticut.
With only games against quadrant one teams remaining on the regular season schedule, Syracuse appears in solid position to make the NCAA Tournament unless they drop an ACC Tournament game to a Wake-esque team, along with some bid steals.
It’s March, so we have to talk about the tournament after every game. It’s also worth noting that Syracuse appears to have hit its stride in the 2-3 zone, a scary thought for potential opponents in the middle of the bracket. Here’s what we watched against the Deacons.
The zone’s in the zone
It’s still difficult to comprehend that Syracuse’s KenPom-adjusted defensive rating (92.7 points per 100 possessions) rivals its own from a year ago (92.2). The defense that held Michigan State, featuring two future NBA stars in Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson, to under 60 points is back, along with a better offense.
March is here and like another big snow storm, the Orange appear to have nearly mastered their defensive formation. They forced 20 turnovers against Wake without pressing and funneled those stops into buckets in transition.
The steals came at the top of the zone, Tyus Battle stripping Isaiah Mucius and Jaylen Hoard for two buckets. They happened in the corners, Paschal Chukwu tipping out the ball from Chaundee Brown and saving it while he fell out of bounds to get Elijah Hughes a pair on the run. Hughes himself moved effortlessly from the wings to the low blocks, defending drives to the rim and laying down a massive block on Brown in the first half.
The zone is still the Orange’s greatest weapon when they break outside of the ACC field in March, and it appears good enough to repeat the success it played in last year’s tournament even with a slightly smaller starting lineup.
Tyus Battle climbing through history
Battle’s closing in on the top-15 all-time scoring list in Syracuse basketball history. With 21 points on 9-of-13 shooting against Wake Forest, he’s up to 1,610 points, four shy of Dave Johnson for 16th.
Battle is also 50 points shy of CJ Fair and 70 of Eric Devendorf. Saturday marked Battle’s 100th game in a Syracuse uniform and he’s making a strong case to be dubbed one of the 10 greatest scorers in Orange history.
In games like the Wake Forest win, he scores from all three levels on the floor and draws fouls to get to the free throw line. It marked his second straight game with 20 points, after dropping 29 on North Carolina, ending a recent spell where he scored single digits against NC State and Pittsburgh with only 11 points in the Louisville win.
Oshae Brissett finding his offense without the three
Brissett’s three-point work over the summer became a highly-touted story entering the year, but once the games began he struggled there and largely moved back to the interior. His balance around the rim hindered his offense, as he hit a sophomore slump through the early portions of the season.
The three-point shot still isn’t there, but the poise and assertiveness around the rim is as he’s adjusted to his new role on the offensive end playing the four around bigger bodies inside. Brissett only shot 3-for-9 in Saturday’s win, but set an assertive tone in the opening minutes that Battle, Hughes and others sprung from for a 79-point, 54-percent offensive performance.
Brissett hit two jumpers inside the arc in the opening minutes, opening himself up for a three by looking a defender off the line but missing that and the other outside attempt that he took in the game. He caught a pass from the perimeter at the rim, set himself and took a dribble to his right for his third basket. He hit 3-of-4 at the line, following Hughes for an offensive rebound later in the game that sent him to the line. Later in the game he distributed out of the high post.
After the Louisville win, Jim Boeheim said that Brissett looked more like last year’s version of himself, perhaps the foremost contributor in Syracuse’s deep run. Brissett’s package of scoring, defending and rebounding at the four is unmatched on the roster and he’s finding greater comfort and balance playing around the rim into March.
Even with Hughes offsetting his lower scoring totals, the Orange will need Brissett as much as anybody to be at his best for postseason success. He averaged 16.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks per game over six ACC and NCAA Tournament games last year.