The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team picked up a third consecutive victory over the weekend with a 71-69 victory over Virginia Tech on the road in Blacksburg, Va. And while SU is still has some pretty big flaws, they are starting to learn how to cover those flaws and do just enough to squeak out some victories.
Next up, Syracuse faces off against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish with a chance to improve to 4-0 on the road in the ACC, and 5-3 overall in the conference. It won’t be easy though, as Notre Dame already beat the Orange in the Dome on the back of 28 points and 14 rebounds from John Mooney.
Let’s take a look at few of the keys to the game and what to watch for on Wednesday night.
1. Containing John Mooney
Speaking of Mooney, I guarantee the number one insight that Jim Boeheim is sharing with his troops is to not let John Mooney beat us. In game one, it was Mooney who was consistently getting Notre Dame second chance opportunities that led to open threes.
He grabbed six offensive rebounds, four of them in the second half, and it led to 12 second chance points. If Syracuse wants a real shot to win this game, they are going to need to do a better job on Mooney to keep him off the offensive glass. If Syracuse can keep him under five offensive rebounds and take away the easy put-backs, we have a real shot to win.
2. Perimeter defense
In game one, the Orange allowed Notre Dame to hit 48.4 percent of their three-point shots. The Irish hit 15 three-pointers in the game, and alongside the offensive rebounding, was the other major reason they were able to pull off a victory.
I’d love to say that they are unlikely to shoot that percentage again, but in truth, Syracuse also shot exactly 48.4 percent from three-point range, and still lost. So the reality is, we need to hit a higher percentage of threes for the best chance to win. If we can hold Notre Dame to 40 percent or less from three, I think Syracuse gets the win.
3. Trading offense for defense
I was absolutely shocked when Jim Boeheim brought Howard Washington into the game in the second half. With the game tightening up, I thought there was zero chance he’d see the light of day after halftime. But there he was, in the game with under 10 minutes to play in a pivotal situation for the Orange.
And in my opinion, he didn’t disappoint, at least on the defensive end. Howard Washington brings a fierce intensity and aggression to the defensive end of the floor. His positioning at the top of the 2-3 is exceptional, and his movement and rotations are a thing of beauty. He really gets the zone and understands how to best interrupt defenses by getting in passing lanes and being active.
Unfortunately, Washington’s offensive game hasn’t quite caught up. He has great form on his shots, but they just aren’t dropping. Until they do, he needs to continue to act as a playmaker, spacing the floor for Elijah Hughes, Buddy Boeheim, and Marek Dolezaj to work their offensive magic. I do hope he keeps shooting if he’s open though. In the exhibitions and in Italy he showed off a very nice outside stroke, I think he just needs to see one go down. Hopefully we see it against the Irish.
4. Marek Dolezaj: whirlwind of fury
When the season began, I honestly wasn’t sure what to make of Marek Dolezaj. A 6-foot-10, 180 pound junior isn’t something you see too often in college basketball. I can’t imagine the metabolism he must have. I was the same way through college. I could eat (or drink) as much as I wanted and not gain an ounce. But I was also 6-foot-2 and 160, not eight inches taller and only 20 pounds heavier.
The point is, I guarantee he’s trying to gain weight. For some people, it just doesn’t happen. Regardless, his slender frame hasn’t stopped him from becoming an essential offensive cog in the Syracuse machine. Dolezaj is averaging 9.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game.
He’s had two straight double doubles, and has eclipsed 10 rebounds in five of his last six games. He has been absolutely sensational. He’s being far more aggressive with the ball on offense, and he’s finishing around the rim.
He has incredible balance with the ball. A seemingly out-of-control drive turns into a gorgeous finish at the rim. An off-balance drive into contact finishes with a line-drive shot that barely grazes the net. I get glimpses of a young Dirk Nowitzksi in some of those awkward looking shots that seem to drop.
The one thing I want to see more out of Marek is his outside game. I think his hand injury in the off-season has had a huge impact on his progression there. You can see it in his free throw shooting. In his first seven games, Marek was just 19-for-36 from the line, only 52.8 percent.
Since then, he’s gone 39-for-50; or 78 percent. Marek is a good shooter. He showed that last year, hitting more than 37 percent of his three-point attempts in a limited sample. He’s been hesitant to shoot from outside this year and hasn’t really looked for it. Most of the time it works, but against defenses that pack the paint or have size, it could be an issue.
He’s already a whirlwind of fury on the interior, now I’d like to see him get more shots from the outside. If he can become another three-point threat for this team, it makes us even more dynamic on the offensive end.
5. Playing time for Elijah Hughes & Buddy Boeheim
Chalk up another 40 minute outing against Virginia Tech for both. In six of their last eight games, Elijah Hughes and Buddy Boeheim have played at least 40 minutes. Hughes has played 40 minutes or more in 11 games this year.
That’s a major problem.
I realize that both players are tremendous offensive weapons. At any point, either can catch fire and torch a team for 10-15 points in a matter of minutes. When they’re on, they are, in my opinion, two of the toughest players to contain in the entire country.
But when they are tired, you can see the change in their performance. You can honestly pick it out on the court when they start to get fatigued and lose energy. They both start to take shorter jumps on their shots, which quickens the release and leads to missed shots. They both are a step slower defensively and not as willing to crash the glass for rebounds.
This is when both players need a breather.
Let’s face it, Elijah and Buddy are tremendous players, but neither is Michael Jordan or even Carmelo Anthony. Heck, even Carmelo didn’t play this many minutes in his season at SU. In fact, he didn’t even play 40 in the championship game. Only once in that entire NCAA tournament did Carmelo play an entire game.
Both Buddy and Elijah are great, but they are human, and humans get fatigued and need rest. Fatigued players lead to missed shots which leads to transition opportunities and unsettled situations for your defense.
I know this falls on deaf ears, but please... get Elijah Hughes and Buddy Boeheim a couple minutes of rest each half!