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Syracuse vs. San Diego State NCAA Tournament preview: Four things to watch

Identifying some of the crucial elements needed to upset the Aztecs in round one.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Virginia Syracuse Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

After nearly a decade apart, the Syracuse Orange and San Diego State Aztecs men’s basketball programs match up once again. Last time out, SDSU never adjusted their shooting to account for being on a windy aircraft carrier. This time, the Aztecs won’t have the same concerns as they look to avoid an upset at the hands of the 11th-seeded Orange.

Before this first round NCAA Tournament game tips off at the very late hour of 9:40 p.m. ET on CBS, let’s dive into some of the things you’ll be watching out for.

Christian: Have I not seen you before?

The knowns for San Diego State are clear on offense. Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel are going to carry the brunt of the scoring, with Terrell Gomez chiming in from three from time to time. What’s helped the Aztecs is that they have an excellent passer of the ball in Trey Pulliam, who is averaging 3.4 assists per game. If he played in the ACC, that number would be good for ninth place among the league leaders in assists.

In a way, this would seem to indicate that San Diego State may use Pulliam as a Kihei Clark-style guard against the Syracuse zone. He only averages 7.2 points per game and only shoots 41% from the floor. This means that Syracuse’s road to victory will be similar to its road against Virginia in the ACC tournament. Covering the known scorers in Mitchell, Schakel and Gomez and forcing the unknowns and the passers to shoot like Pulliam will be critical to ensure that Aztecs don’t gain offensive momentum.

The theme of threat identification has been prevalent for a team that can over-rotate on defense. Keeping tabs of the shooters will be especially important.

Kevin: Player movement

In all this talk about Syracuse playing it’s best ball recently I’ve noticed that Jim Boeheim has reverted to his 2018 strategy with Buddy playing the role of Tyus Battle. Syracuse’s offensive sets have been focused on working to screen Buddy open rather than rely on players to drive and dish. The increased minutes for Edwards/Richmond/Braswell have given Syracuse better balance on defense and have put more offensive focus on Guerrier attacking the rim. I’m curious to see if the Aztecs defensive philosophy will disrupt this plan or if the Orange can remain patient for 40 minutes.

Szuba: Syracuse offense

Much is being made of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone and how San Diego State can attack Jim Boeheim’s vaunted defense. But those of us that have been paying attention know that the strength of this Syracuse team is the offense. How will the Orange perform against one of the best defenses in the country? Buddy Boeheim has been red-hot down the stretch. Can he keep his shooting streak intact and can forwards Alan Griffin and Quincy Guerrier emerge offensively from the forward spot?

John: Forcing San Diego State outside

This isn’t necessarily a unique goal for this game, as it’s a core tenet of running this zone. But if SDSU is forced into a perimeter offense early on (perhaps by another fast start from the Orange), it ends one of two ways: the Aztecs shoot Syracuse straight out of the gym at some point — they’ve hit 37.5% of their threes — or they miss just enough for the Orange to pull off a close win. Even if I’m not necessarily sold on SU’s perimeter defense, I still think it’s worth ‘Cuse taking its chances with San Diego State just firing away.

Syracuse can still win even if the Aztecs drive it inside. I just like their odds a whole lot better if SDSU tries to beat them from three (even if not to the extent they attempted it on the USS Midway).