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Syracuse men’s basketball vs. North Carolina preview: 5 things to watch for

Can the ‘Cuse top the Heels and advance to the ACC tournament semifinals?

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The regular season is officially over and the postseason is upon us. For the Syracuse Orange, it’s tournament champs or bust if we want to make it back to the NCAA Tournament, and the first step starts tonight at 9 pm against the North Carolina Tar Heels.

While threats of the Coronavirus have already shut down a conference tournament and limited attendance at others, it looks like business as usual for the ACC. Last night, the Tar Heels dismantled the Hokies to advance to face the Orange today, so we get a chance to exact some revenge... hopefully.

Unfortunately, UNC’s baby blue has been like kryptonite for the Orange lately, so we are going to need a tremendous effort from everyone on the court to squeak out the win. With that said, let’s look at the five keys to the game and what to watch for tonight against the Tar Heels.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

1. The antithesis of the quick hook

In the Miami game to close out the regular season, Joe Girard and Buddy Boeheim combined to score 25 points. They also combined for seven rebounds, seven assists, and three steals. By those numbers, you’d think they both had quite solid games.

But if you dig a little deeper, you realize they shot a combined 9-for-32 and 4-for-20 from deep. That’s 28 percent and 20 percent respectively. On defense, both gave up a tremendous number of wide open threes. Luckily, Miami missed the majority in the first half. Not so lucky (or surprising), they started to make those open threes in the second half and overtime.

Did I mention that Boeheim and Girard combined to play 86 of an available 90 minutes, including the entire second half and overtime? You want to tell me they’re not tired and can handle the volume minutes? Fine. Take it, I’m not even going to argue it.

What I will argue is that two players who would have had trouble throwing the ball into the Atlantic Ocean against Miami shouldn’t be playing every single minute from halftime on.

Joe Girard isn’t Sherman Douglas, Pearl Washington, or even Johnny Flynn. Buddy Boeheim isn’t Carmelo Anthony or Billy Owens. These aren’t All-American caliber players deserving of an endless leash. These are a freshman and sophomore, who would be quality role players or strong bench contenders on almost any other Orange team. Sorry, but that’s the truth.

How many hero balls from eight feet behind the three-point line will we see against UNC from Girard? How many blown assignments from Boeheim on the perimeter? Will they see the bench if they continue to play poorly? It could be the difference between victory and defeat against the Tar Heels. It certainly was against the Hurricanes.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

2. Good Sidibe or bad Sidibe?

Last time out against the North Carolina Tar Heels, Bourama Sidibe had the game of his career, collecting 17 points and 15 rebounds and almost single-handedly keeping the Orange in the game. Yet even a monster game from the big man wasn’t enough for a Syracuse win.

So which Sidibe will show up this time against UNC? If we have any shot of winning the game, it’s going to need to be good Sidibe. The one who doesn’t commit stupid fouls or give up position on the interior with slow footwork. If Bourama can keep himself out of foul trouble and play solid interior defense, he could have another very good game.

I’d really like to see us post him up more and get the ball to him on the low block on offense. We desperately need to get their bigs, especially Garrison Brooks, in foul trouble, and the only way it will happen is by going straight at them. If we can get Sidibe going early, we can absolutely win this game.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

3. Protect the Perimeter and 4. Protect the Paint

The first game against the Tar Heels we lost from a combination of poor perimeter defense and an inability to keep UNC off the offensive glass. North Carolina hit 11 threes and collected 13 offensive rebounds on the way to a 92-79 win. For the Orange to stand any chance, they are going to need to do a better job in both areas.

While the strategy of letting UNC shoot from the outside backfired in game one, it’s still not a bad strategy to employ. The problem is, we can’t just pack it in and let them shoot wide open threes all game. We still need to actually defend the outside and get a hand in shooters faces. Percentages tank when shots are actually challenged, so that needs to be a huge focal point here.

The other major challenge will be offensive rebounding and protecting the paint. This is why it’s so essential that Sidibe stay out of foul trouble. The only chance we have of getting defensive rebounds consistently is with Sidibe manning the middle. Bourama has proven himself to be a very capable rebounder, and even does a solid job boxing out. But when Marek Dolezaj or Jesse Edwards are in the middle, the glass becomes an open sieve for second chance points.

If we can hold UNC under 10 offensive rebounds and under 10 made three-pointers, we will win this game.

5. End the shooting slump

This shooting slump that the Orange are in is getting ridiculous. As a team, we’re now shooting right around 25 percent from the perimeter over our last 13 games. That’s not just bad, that is flat out terrible. If it wasn’t for a hot start from the outside in conference play, we would be dead last from deep.

In Jim Boeheim’s press conference after Miami, he himself even said “maybe we aren’t a good three-point shooting team. The evidence is there”, and he’s absolutely right. The evidence is there. The question is, why?

Buddy has one of the most pure shots in all of college basketball. Girard was a sharpshooter who hit close to 40 percent for his high school career (including AAU) at a high volume. Hughes was touted as one of the better shooters that Jim Boeheim has seen.

Yet all three have struggled tremendously. Yes, the defense has improved against them over the course of the season. But all three have had plenty of open looks, and all of them have missed those open looks repeatedly. We’re missing the tough ones and the easy ones, and it needs to change.

There is no reason three quality shooters should all have regressed this much. It’s time to buck that trend and go on a big run in the ACC Tournament, starting against UNC. It’s time to start hitting those open shots and show everyone what Syracuse can do when it’s firing on all cylinders.

It’s time to end the nine game losing streak and smash the Tar Heels.