Despite all the news yesterday surrounding COVID-19, including the NBA postponing the season, the NCAA planning to hold its tournaments in fanless arenas, and Fred Hoiberg acting like a fool and coaching while sick with the flu, the show must go on in the ACC Tournament!
The Syracuse Orange, coming off a 30-point drubbing of North Carolina (boy that sure does feel good to say) now turn their sights to the Louisville Cardinals. Louisville obliterated the Orange in the first meeting of these two teams 90-66, so hopefully we aren’t in store for a repeat of that performance.
Let’s take a look at the five keys to the game tonight and what to watch for.
1. Win big in the first half
The main reason there was such smooth sailing against North Carolina is because the Orange never let off the gas pedal in the first 20 minutes. They started strong out of the gate with a 7-0 run to start the game and finished the half even stronger with a 15-0 run to close it out.
Fast starts have not been common for the Orange this year, so to see that kind of start against a UNC team that supposedly more athletic, stronger, and faster than us was a thing of beauty. We’re going to need more of that against Louisville if we want any shot at winning.
The Cardinals pose an even greater threat than North Carolina due to their size and talent at every position. Jordan Nwora, Steven Enoch, and Dwayne Sutton will make it tough on the inside and Ryan McMahon (and Nwora) will keep the Orange honest from the perimeter. It’s imperative to get out to a fast start and not have to play catchup. SU will be tired by the second half, so if we aren’t in a good position early, the game could get out of hand fast.
2. Crash the boards
One contributing factor for a more than 40-point swing between games one and game two between UNC and SU was rebounding. In game one North Carolina out-rebounded the Orange by 10 and dominated the interior.
Last night, UNC still won the rebounding battle, but the margin was just four. And the major difference was that even though the Orange gave up a number of offensive rebounds, the majority of those led to putbacks for two or contested shots that were also missed, as opposed to wide open kick out threes in game one.
Against Louisville, the Orange are going to have just as big a challenge on the glass. If we can keep the margin close, like we did against UNC, we have a great shot at stealing this game and advancing to the ACC semifinals.
3. Playing in an empty arena
With the ACC pulling the plug on fans for the games starting today, it will be very interesting to see how the teams respond to a mostly empty arena. It feels like it will remove a lot of the intensity of these games and seems like it will also remove a lot of the pressure off of the players.
In all honesty, I see this as a bit of a bad thing for the Orange. This team has absolutely nothing to lose and is playing with a chip on their shoulder. I think they would have been rejuvenated by the fans like they were in the UNC game (once all the sad UNC fans left with 10 minutes still in the game). I think Louisville is still trying to earn themselves a three seed in the tourney, so they could play tight trying to make that happen.
Also, let’s just say it. It’s going to be weird. It’s going to feel more like a scrimmage than a real game and it will be very interesting to see how both teams react. How will it affect shooting? We’ll find out soon.
4. Hughes Stays Hot
Elijah Hughes felt slighted at not receiving more votes for ACC Player of the Year. I can’t say I blame him. No one in the ACC did more for his team than Elijah Hughes, nor was any player more consistent in league play and throughout the year. Hughes only games where he didn’t score at least 10 points were both games he left early due to injury.
Against UNC, Hughes made it his personal task to bury the Tar Heels, scoring 16 first-half points and finishing with 27 for the game. He also added 7 rebounds and hit four three-pointers. Basically, he was a one-man wrecking crew, and I don’t think he’s done.
If Hughes can remain hot against Louisville and take it upon himself to put the team on his shoulders, we can absolutely beat Louisville. We crushed them last year when they had a fairly similar roster, so it’s absolutely possible. But it requires Hughes to stay hot, and I see no reason why that can’t happen.
5. The emergence of a supporting cast
We’ve seen the emergence of Marek Dolezaj as the season progressed, so his performance, while impressive, wasn’t entirely unexpected. The big problem is that after you get past Elijah Hughes, Buddy Boeheim, Joe Girard, and Marek, there really hasn’t been much else to be exited about for much of the year.
Both Quincy Guerrier and Bourama Sidibe showed flashes at different points in the season, but never looked quite ready. That couldn’t be further from the case last night against UNC. Sidibe and Guerrier combined for 19 points, 22 rebounds, and 3 blocks against the Tar Heels.
But beyond the numbers, both players had phenomenal games at both ends of the court. The defense by both was an absolute revelation. I don’t know where this Sidibe has been all year, but his challenges of Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot in the lane against UNC were truly impressive. He almost always went straight up and challenged the shot without fouling. In fact, two of his four fouls were incredibly weak and probably shouldn’t even have been called.
Guerrier was equally effective on the defensive end, and pulled down some rebounds with an intensity I’ve never seen in him. We need that, and more, against Louisville. If both players can bring that same level of intensity, the Orange can beat the Cardinals and move on to the ACC semifinals.