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Syracuse men’s basketball: what to watch for vs. Illinois

The Orange face a tough road test against the 16th-best team in the country.

NCAA Basketball: Empire Classic-Syracuse at Richmond Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team (3-3) returns to the hardwood in what will be its most challenging opponent of the young season. The Orange take on the No. 16 Illinois Fighting Illini (5-1) on the road in the 2022 ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Syracuse hopes to move on from Saturday’s 73-72 loss to Bryant, which was plagued with poor individual performances by the Orange and a brawl that made national headlines.

Illinois has just one loss this season, a nine-point defeat to No. 5 Virginia. They also have a win over No. 21 UCLA. They are a perfect 4-0 at home.

With Syracuse looking to avoid falling below .500, here’s what to watch for against Illinois.

Dom: Can Syracuse’s backcourt power the offense?

Illinois currently has the 20th-best adjusted defensive efficiency in the NCAA, per KenPom. The Fighting Illini will be the Orange’s biggest test so far, and while Syracuse’s defense will have to deal with the 36th-best offense in college basketball, its own offense will be the biggest concern. Joe Girard is coming off back-to-back poor performances, with opponents taking him out of the offensive equation and daring the rest of Syracuse’s roster to put the ball on the floor and create their own shots. With Judah Mintz back in the lineup, it will still be tough for the Orange to get easy points. Transition opportunities will be limited, and Illinois has the bodies to throw at Jesse Edwards. Mintz would need to play a near-perfect game, Girard has to return back to his usual self, and the Orange will need to have an out-of-body experience from three to have a chance in this one.

Szuba: Threes fly against the zone?

In the last three games, Syracuse has ditched the man-to-man defense in favor of exclusively playing 2-3 zone (surprise!). The zone is susceptible to give up perimeter shots — opponents are taking 46.4% of their field goal attempts from outside against Syracuse. And Illinois makes a lot of them. The Illini rank No. 19 in the country in threes made with 10.5 per game and it knocks them down at a 37.7% clip. Terrence Shannon Jr. does most of the damage, but Illinois has multiple guards who can stretch it. So too can Baylor transfer Matthew Mayer. Take cover.

Mike: Joltin’ Joe Girard, or a Jump to Justin Taylor?

We’ve seen the streakiness of Joe Girard flare up again recently, as he followed up a career-high 31 points against Richmond with back-to-back games where he was a non-factor on offense. If he is out of it again early on, then Jim Boeheim needs to make the gutsy decision to bring out Justin Taylor in the 2 and let him ride. I know Bryant was just one game for the rookie, but sometimes you have to play the hot hand to pull off a big upset. Or Joe can turn back into a 3-point god out of nowhere and that whole point becomes moot. Whatever works.

Kevin: Mid-range misery

We knew this Syracuse team wasn’t going to be launching a lot of 3-pointers like last season. What we didn’t expect is that the Orange are shooting 50.2% on 2-point shots, which ranks 204th in D1. Syracuse is 35% on mid-range shots (shots taken outside of the lane) and that makes sense when you look at the type of shots that result from the lack of ball and player movement. The starting backcourt of Judah Mintz and Joe Girard are a combined 8-32 on these midrange shots. The Orange need to do a better job of getting the ball to the rim instead of settling for these low-percentage shots.

Christian: Huh, you’re good at that

Syracuse centers and foul trouble. Name a more iconic duo.

Jesse Edwards continues to struggle with foul trouble early in games. The downside to that is that Syracuse needs Edwards to be aggressive to help balance the team on both sides of the ball. When he gets into foul trouble, Edwards plays extremely more timid as he tries to avoid accumulating the fouls. What could actually help Edwards is watching what Illinois big man Coleman Hawkins does. At 6-foot-10, Hawkins has nine steals, seven blocks and only 10 personal fouls through six games. He’s recorded only one foul in three games and hasn’t recorded more than three fouls in a game this season. Maybe Edwards can take a few notes as Syracuse needs him on the floor to even stand a fighting chance against Power Five teams.

What will you be watching for in tonight’s game?