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Syracuse men’s basketball vs. Duke: 5 things to watch for

Can the Orange stun the Blue Devils and pick up their 7th ACC win?

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

Anyone else still festering over that Clemson loss? I know I am. What a missed opportunity.

I know many have talked about the officiating in the game, and I think that is completely fair. There were a number of questionable calls, and any time that two of your starters foul out with more than five minutes left in the game (eight minutes for Marek Dolezaj), the officiating clearly impacted the trajectory of the game.

That being said, blaming the refs as the main reason for the loss is a bit short-sighted. The refs weren’t the ones who couldn’t defend the paint to save their lives. The refs weren’t the ones missing open shot after open shot from behind the arc. The refs didn’t abuse the Syracuse Orange on the offensive and defensive glass, even prior to losing Bourama Sidibe and Marek.

The truth is, there were bad calls both ways. Yes, it seemed like more of them favored the Clemson Tigers down the stretch, but the Orange had a nine point lead in the second half with under 15 minutes to play. The refs aren’t the reason Syracuse basketball missed 10 of their last 15 shots. Solid Clemson defense and tired legs were.

Missed offensive opportunities and a defense that refused to adapt and guard Tevin Mack in the paint were the difference in the game. The refs reduced our margin for error once we lost our bigs, but our offense and defense failed to execute well enough down the stretch. Plain and simple.

So how do the Orange bounce back after such a tough loss, especially when facing the Duke Blue Devils, the number nine team in the country? Let’s take a look at the five things to watch during Saturday’s game.

1. Interior Defense

Clemson abused the Orange on the interior Tuesday night, and if Duke is smart, they’ll look to do the same. The weakness of this team is it’s overall size (not height) in the back of the zone. Elijah at the small forward isn’t too bad because of his raw athleticism, but both Marek Dolezaj and Bourama Sidibe are so thin that it’s nearly impossible for them to hold position against the big bodies of the ACC.

And there’s few bodies bigger than Vernon Carey Jr. At 6-foot-10 and 270 pounds, Carey is the Goliath to our backline of Davids. I don’t expect Marek or Bourama, or anyone for that matter, to stop Carey. But I’d also rather see them give up low-moderately contested shots without fouling, even if it means Carey has a huge game.

Make it just tough enough where he has to shoot from an uncomfortable angle or off balance. If he’s got position, just let him have it. Keeping Marek and Bourama on the court is far more valuable than some interior points that Carey is going to get either way.

NCAA Basketball: Brown at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

2. Multiple hot shooters

Honestly, we’re due for a game where multiple guys go off, and it’s going to need to happen against Duke if we’re going to win this thing. In Syracuse’s last four games (three of them wins) the Orange have shot 29.6, 23.8, 30.8, and 25.0 percent respectively from behind the arc. Collectively, that’s just 27.5 percent from three-point range, nearly eight percent below our season average.

The Orange are due for a breakout game from deep. Duke is 74th nationally in three-point defense, so they are certainly no slouch, but I think everyone on SU knows how important this game is and comes ready to play.

3. A sixth man emerges

Quency Guerrier has been very solid over his past several games. In his last four, he’s averaging 7.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in more than 22 minutes per game. He has turned into a reliable sixth man for the team when the inevitable foul trouble of Marek and Bourama happens.

While he might not be the offensive juggernaut we all had hoped for, and his three-point shot is not anywhere close to ready, he has done a lot of the grunt work for this team. He’s turned into a very reliable rebounder and his defense has improve tremendously with more minutes.

Look for him to contribute in a big way against Duke. I think he will be called upon early and often due to foul trouble and I think he steps up and contributes. If Quincy can get anywhere close to a double-double in this game, I think the Orange can win it.

4. Second half collapses

In every ACC loss this year aside from the opener against Virginia, the Orange has held a solid second half lead. Against Clemson we were up nine with 14 minutes to play. Home against Virginia Tech we were up 11 with less than 14 minutes left and up seven at several different points against Notre Dame.

In each situation, the Orange couldn’t close out the game and in each loss, they were outscored in the second half. I think we all know at this point my feelings on players who are fatigued, so I’m not even going to get into it.

What I will say is that it just can’t happen against Duke. They are far too good a team. If the Orange want a win, they will need to play one of their best second halfs of the season. That means playing smart, playing under control, and being efficient on offense. We’ll see how the team responds.

NCAA Basketball: Wake Forest at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

5. Handling the pressure

Tre Jones is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country. Joe Girard has been one of the best freshmen point guards in the country. He’s 31st in the entire ACC in scoring and fourth among freshman. The three freshman ahead of him? Cassius Stanley, Jay Heath, and Landers Nolley II. Pretty good company. He’s also 12th in the ACC in assists and 11th in steals. Joe has quietly been having an exceptional freshman season.

So what happens when one of the best defenders in the country goes up against one of the best freshman guards (who also turns it over less than twice a game on average)? We’ll find out on Saturday, but if the Orange are going to have a shot against Duke, Joe is going to need to handle the pressure.