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Syracuse men’s basketball vs. Clemson preview: Five things to watch

Can the ‘Cuse crush Clemson in this conference clash?

Clemson v Syracuse Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

Five in a row! This team is certainly full of surprises.

After another hard-fought victory against the Pittsburgh Panthers on Saturday, the Syracuse Orange turn their attention to the Clemson Tigers. SU and Clemson tip off at 7 pm on Tuesday, giving the Orange a chance to get to 5-0 on the road in the ACC and 7-3 overall.

Should they win, Syracuse will have likely put themselves back into the NCAA Tournament conversation. What an incredible turnaround from three weeks ago, coming off of back-to-back home losses.

Since then, this team has truly grown up. They’ve developed an uncanny ability to find and exploit defensive weaknesses with expert precision. They’ve improved defensively by focusing in on key players and always knowing where they are on the court while playing far more frenetic and aggressive. They’ve developed the ability to put a run together and learned how to close out games.

The bottom line is that this team has made a lot of progress in a short amount of time, and I for one am impressed. Now it’s a question of how to keep the momentum. Let’s try and figure that out as we take a look at the five things to watch for in Tuesday’s game.

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

1. Points in the paint

In Syracuse’s last four games, they have scored 36, 34, 36, and 36 points in the paint respectively. More than 47% of the Orange’s entire production has come from the paint. That is an absolute revelation. Over the first 16 games, the Orange only averaged 23 points in the paint per contest, less than 33% of their offense.

This dramatic shift has directly aligned with improved offensive play and has really helped boost the confidence of the whole team. And the scary part for SU’s opponents is that it’s not just one or two guys looking to get into the paint.

Elijah Hughes can drive or back down virtually any defender. Buddy Boeheim has become adept at getting into the lane and getting easy shots over smaller opponents. Marek Dolezaj is a mismatch nightmare for pretty much any team on the interior because of his speed, size, and deft touch. Even Joe Girard has gotten into the paint at times for easy hoops. And Bourama Sidibe has done a great job lately of finishing his opportunities.

The ability to be efficient on the interior opens up the offense for the Orange. No longer are we a one-dimensional three-point shooting threat. Now, we are a threat from outside and inside, which is far more difficult to slow down.

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

2. Shot selection

Piggybacking off the points in the paint, let’s also talk about the improved shot selection for Syracuse during this win streak. One of the things that came up often in these articles before the streak was the bad shots the Orange would settle for at times. Buddy, Eli, and Joe were all culprits here, often forcing up tough shots for no real reason. There was often still time on the shot clock, but an awkward or off-balance shot got launched regardless.

That’s not happening nearly as much in the past five games. Syracuse has worked on moving the ball and getting it to whoever has the mismatch on defense, or waiting until there is an open shot the majority of the time. They’re being more patient on offense, but also more intelligent. They’re willing to probe the defense and exploit a weakness. It’s the sign of a team that has listened to their coaches and is executing on the gameplan. And it’s working.

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

3. One-on-one matchups

Which coincides perfectly with my next talk point: one-on-one matchups. Syracuse has done a phenomenal job of exploiting them in recent games. Early in the season, this was a team that relied solely on passing the ball to try and find open looks. No one was driving to the hoop with any consistency. No one was looking to beat his man off the dribble.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the passing. Nothing makes me happier than watching unselfish basketball. But a team truly becomes deadly when they are both great passers and great in isolation, and the Orange are heading in that direction.

Elijah Hughes has put more emphasis on his post-up and pull-up game to great success. Buddy Boeheim has done a great job driving into the paint for pullups, and is surprisingly strong with a soft touch around the rim. Marek Dolezaj is like lightning in a bottle, and somehow contorts his way to the hoop at will, finishing at a high clip.

Those three have done an excellent job in isolation, one-on-one matchups. And they’ve also been very smart about it. The majority of the time, if they probe and are met with strong resistance, they’ll pass out instead of forcing a bad drive and shot.

How they match up with Clemson and how well they exploit those them in isolation will likely determine whether the Orange come away with a win or a loss.

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

4. Buddy’s second-half slowdowns

As we get into the tougher portion of the schedule, the end of the second half of games is going to become even more crucial, and lately, Buddy has been struggling. With Elijah Hughes leading the ACC in scoring, it has opened a lot of opportunities for Buddy to find openings early in the game, and he has made teams pay.

But in the second half, teams have been switching their best defender onto Buddy and slowing him down significantly. He is also hampered by the fact that he is repeatedly playing full games and gets tired down the stretch.

I think the Orange need to start playing this to their advantage and using Buddy as a decoy more on offense late in the second half. Make it look like you’re running plays for him, for instance the double-high screen that SU loves to run. But right as the bigs are setting up and the defense is reacting, have them both roll down to either side of the hoop instead. The confusion might open up some easy interior opportunities.

Or there’s that other dreaded word that Jim Boeheim hates to hear: rest. Maybe give Buddy a couple minutes of it in the first half. But since I’m more likely to grow wings and fly to Neptune than that is to happen, let’s try out plan A.

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

5. The Amoeba Effect

I’ve enjoyed watching a good zone defense for more than 30 years now. For most of this year, Syracuse basketball did not play a good zone defense. They were slow to react, consistently getting beat off the dribble, and out-hustled at every turn.

Recently, they’ve done almost a 180. Everyone on the team has really stepped up the intensity on the court and the difference is tangible. I like to call it the Amoeba Effect, because the zone acts as one and morphs and adapts to the situation with fluidity and ease. The rotations are smooth and effective, the closeouts are much quicker, and the footwork is fast and furious.

The interior defense has been the true revelation. Bourama Sidibe, although still prone to too many fouls, has actually turned into a respectable defender on the interior in the past few games. His footwork looks much better and he looks a step ahead as opposed to a step behind like he was in many games earlier this season.

Additionally, the development of Quincy Guerrier off the bench has been a big help. His rebounding (and five extra fouls) have been a huge help in shoring up the defense. Even Howard Washington and Brycen Goodine have contributed recently, and both are plus defenders up top.

How will the zone morph against Clemson on Tuesday? Let us know what you think in the comments!