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Syracuse men’s basketball vs. Virginia Tech preview: 5 things to watch for

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Can the Orange get revenge for last year’s blowout loss to the Hokies?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 28 Niagara at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been a frustrating season for Syracuse Orange basketball already, with the sixth loss coming at the hands of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Saturday in rather heartbreaking fashion. So what have we learned from the season so far? Well, two main things have become apparent:

  1. The offense is WAY better than last year. If we exclude the egregious 34-point debacle against Virginia to open the season, Syracuse basketball is averaging 77.5 points per game. Even with the UVA game, we are still averaging 74.4 per contest, more than four points per game higher than last year. We’re also 10th in the nation in assists per game, compared to 279th a season ago. That’s an incredible turnaround on offense.
  2. The defense is WAY worse than last year. While we’re only giving up 66.9 points per game, that is 131st in Division 1. Last year through 14 games we were 11th at 61.5 points per contest, with a relatively similar strength of schedule. What does it all mean? Probably what Jim Boeheim himself would tell you, and the mantra he has lived by in recent years: a good defense beats a good offense...most times.

With Virginia Tech on the horizon, how will these two main factors play out against the Hokies? Let’s take a deeper look at these factors and more as we break down the five main things to watch for against Virginia Tech on Tuesday.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 28 Niagara at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

1. The Elijah Hughes Show

Let’s face it, Elijah Hughes is head and shoulders better than anyone else on this year’s Syracuse basketball team. Heck, he’s better than the overwhelming majority of players at the D1 level. If he hasn’t already played himself into the draft, he almost assuredly will by year’s end should he choose that route.

With that in mind, we need to keep running the offense through him. What I loved against Notre Dame were the possessions where he brought the ball up court himself, or got it at the top of the key early in the shot clock. It seems that any time he gets his hands on the ball, good things happen. And any time that Joe and Buddy play hot potato up top, the half court offense stagnates.

We need to continue to feed him the rock on every possession possible. Even if it doesn’t lead to a shot from Elijah, he stretches the defense so much that it opens things up for others on offense. Audrey, the giant, man-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors said it best:

2. The Fundamentals

Does anyone on this team know how to box out? It certainly doesn’t seem like it based on the Notre Dame game. So many times a shot would go up, several SU players would watch the ball, not find a man to box out, then lose the rebounding battle due to poor positioning. Over and over it happened, and it will continue to happen until these players start adhering to the fundamentals of basketball.

This is honestly my number one gripe with Boeheim’s philosophy. His admonishment of boxing out in the zone is borderline incompetence. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jim Boeheim and appreciate that he is one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game.But to not practice fundamentals like boxing out, finding a man when a shot goes up, or even just keeping your hands up on defense, is flat out bad coaching. This team can’t out-athlete other teams, so the philosophy of not boxing out in a zone is just silly.

Some of it might be on the players for not executing correctly in the moment, but the onus falls on the coaching staff for not making this a priority for the team.

And until they do, expect more of the same. We’ll continue to get thrashed on the boards and give up a plethora of second chance buckets. Don’t be surprised if that’s the case again against Virginia Tech.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 28 Niagara at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

3. Backline Defense

It’s not just rebounding that is the problem for us. It’s also the backline defense as a whole. We no longer have a 7’2” rim protector at center, and the defensive hole that Paschal Chukwu left is glaring. While Bourama Sidibe has his moments, he hasn’t been a consistent force on the interior and has been downright dominated by any big man with even the semblance of an inside game.

And it’s not just Sidibe. Marek Dolezaj has been a black hole at the center position on defense. He is completely unable to rebound from the five spot, and gets bullied off the block about as easily as you’d expect for a 6’10, 180 pound toothpick. Even on the wing, his slender frame makes it difficult to chorale rebounds. He makes up for it with tremendous hustle, but usually gives up several easy baskets a game on putbacks or poor defense around the hoop.

And Elijah Hughes, while a tremendous athlete and incredibly gifted offensive talent, has been lackluster on the defensive end. Many of the three-pointers SU has given up have come from the high corner where Elijah is supposed to help cover. He’s also been hit or miss on the glass, often seeming disinterested in battling for rebounds. With his athleticism he can out-leap a lot of players, but rarely do you see it on the rebounding front.

4. Transition Defense

Unsettled situations continue to be a problem for the Orange. Against Notre Dame, several long rebounds led to easy fastbreaks for Notre Dame. And even worse, a few turned into open three-pointers with Notre Dame’s smart strategy of filling in directly behind the man with the ball, making it tough for the defense to get out in time to contest.

The unfortunate reality is that this probably won’t change much. Syracuse takes a large volume of three-pointers, which means there are going to be a lot more long rebounds. What the team can do, however, is focus on getting back quicker. Joe Girard, Buddy Boeheim, and Elijah Hughes all need to stop watching their shots. They need to be sprinting back as soon as they shoot. If we get an offensive rebound, great. Hustle back, regroup. But if we don’t, it means we’ll have several players all back to stop transitions.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 28 Niagara at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

5. Perimeter Defense

Noticing a theme here? I can’t harp on the defense without talking about the top of the zone and the perimeter, where SU’s defense has been ugly.

Joe Girard and Buddy Boeheim, to be quite frank, are poor defenders up top. Joe at least does a great job of hustling and getting his hands in passing lanes quite often, but Buddy is an absolute liability at the top of the zone on defense. He’s slow to react, bites way too often on shot and pass fakes, and gets torched by any guard with even a hint of quickness.

If this team is going to be competitive in the ACC this year, it starts and ends with the perimeter defense. Even though Buddy is outmatched athletically, good footwork and positioning can make up for that. So can being aggressive and harassing players every time they touch the ball in his area. Both he and Joe need to step up the intensity on the defensive front. I don’t want to say the words “reckless abandon”, but I honestly think they need to play that way for the defense to get better.