StLou's Previews: Syracuse Orange

Syracuse Orange

The Hoos welcome one of the nation's best defenses, and one of the ACC's most struggling offenses, to Charlottesville tonight. Despite this rivalry only being in its fifth year, Virginia and Syracuse have certainly had its share of memorable (for better and worse) games; will this one live up to the hype?

Game Details:

Date/Time: Tuesday, Jan 9th, 8:00 PM EST
Location: John Paul Jones Arena, Charlottesville, VA

What 'They' Say

Vegas: UVA -9, O/U 115
TAPE: Ranks Syracuse #51, predicts a 66-49 UVA win, 95% confidence
KenPom: Ranks Syracuse #49, predicts a 58-46 UVA win, 86% confidence


Depth Chart:


PG #23 Frank Howard, 6-5 205, JR
37.4 mpg, 15.4 ppg, 5.8 apg, 38% 3P%
SG #25 Tyus Battle, 6-6 205, SO 
37.5 mpg, 19.5 ppg, 1.5 apg, 34% 3P% 
SF #11 Oshae Brissett, 6-8 210, FR 
37.5 mpg, 15.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 34% FG% 
PF #2 Matthew Moyer, 6-8 215, SO 
21.1 mpg, 4.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 55% FG% 
C #13 Paschal Chukwu, 7-2 228, JR 
26 mpg, 5.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.3 bpg 

Key Reserves


#10 Howard Washington, 6-3 180, FR
5.1 mpg, 0.5 ppg, 0.5 apg, 10% 3P%
F #21 Marek Dolezaj, 6-9 180, FR 
23.1 mpg, 4.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 46% FG% 
C  #35 Bourama Sidibe, 6-10 205, FR 
13.9 mpg, 3.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 68% FG% 


The ABC's of SU:

A) This is a really thin, inexperienced team. Tyus Battle is the only primary rotation player back from last year's team and is often playing 40 minutes a game. Frank Howard is a junior who's been thrust from limited role player (15 mpg last year) to 37 mpg starter. Grad transfer PG Geno Thorpe quit the team around Christmas. Wing Brissett was a high 3-star recruit last year who's playing almost every minute by sheer necessity. The 4 and 5 spots are the only positions with any rotation. At the 4, true freshman Euro import Dolezaj and RS Freshman (and Kyle Guy BFF) Moyer are splitting time, and at the 5 true freshman Sidibe is backing up former role player and Providence transfer Chukwu (only played 7 games last year). KenPom rates them 334 out of 351 in experience nationwide, and 348th in terms of bench minutes played... reserves only account for a combined 40 minutes a game, and that includes games before Thorpe quit.

B) The offense is really off track. Maybe it's a talent issue, maybe it's experience. But the Orange are really struggling to score this year. 273rd nationally in effective FG% (47.9%). 31.5% from 3 and 48.3% from 2. Turning the ball over once every five possessions. Notre Dame, a team known for anything but their defense, just held 'Cuse to 49 points on their home floor. They struggled to break 60 points against Eastern Michigan. They scored only 57 points against St. Bonaventure. The only bright spots have been their offensive rebounding, putting their length and energy to good use generating second chances, and their ability to draw BS bailout shooting fouls (FT ratio of 41%, 35th nationally). Tyus Battle has been the only consistent weapon, double digit scoring in all but 1 game this year, with only his 3 point shooting doing him in (1-7 in a loss to WF, 1-9 in a loss to St Bonaventure, 2-11 in a loss to Kansas). Brissett has emerged as their #2 threat, but his shooting is only average, instead doing his damage at the FT line (10 FTAs vs VT, 12 vs Georgetown), and he's only 28% from deep. After that their offense is a mix of inefficient (Frank Howard) or low-usage / garbage putback (Chukwu) players.

C) The Syracuse Zone is back with a fury. For all of the Orange's struggles this year, the defense has not been one of them. Knowing all of the other hurdles his team would face, Boeheim decided to double down on defense as a team identity, and it's paying off. Their zone works best when there's size and length at all 5 positions, and gone are the smaller guards like Trevor Cooney or John Gillon at the top. Instead, they run out two long guards in Howard (6-5) and Battle (6-6), have size on the wings with Brissett (6-8), Dolezaj (6-9), and Moyer (6-8); all anchored by the tallest center in Boeheim's history, Chukwu (7-2). All this length is being put to excellent use challenging paint scoring (holding teams to 42% on 2's, 7th nationally) and generating turnovers (steal percentage of 12.5%, 6th nationally). There are no easy buckets against that zone this year. (Bonus drinking game content: drink any time the announcers refer to the 'Cuse zone as "Vaunted.")

Their season to date:

Syracuse is 12-4 on the season, 1-2 in the ACC. Their best wins are over Maryland and Virginia Tech. Their last two games are losses at Wake Forest and at home to a shorthanded Notre Dame. 

Keys to getting the win:

1) Limit them to one shot. The Orange can't shoot. We covered that above. What's keeping them in games is their second chance offense; they're 5th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, grabbing well over a third of their misses (37.7%). They are sending all three of their forwards/centers to the glass hard on every shot, and all five guys who rotate in at the 3-5 spots have offensive rebounding percentages between 7.8% and 11% (anything above 8 is good, above 10 is great). Howard and Battle generally sprint back, but our forwards in this game better be prepared to not just body up, but also gain leverage for position. Hold them to one shot (should go without saying... without bailing them out and putting them on the FT line) and their offense will crack in a hurry. Despite our systemic success on the defensive glass, this is certainly an important focus area; we gave up 19 offensive rebounds to UNC.

2) Attack in transition if at all reasonable. Not going to lie, that zone scares me a little this year. So we should get down the floor and score before it sets up if at all possible. I don't think we're going to get a lot of transition opportunities off rebounds, because we're going to need all hands on deck to close out defensive possessions; dangerous to leak out a runner. But Cuse's ball-handling is sloppy, turning the ball over once ever 5 possessions, about half of those live ball steals. Given how effective our turnover generation has been this year (21st nationally in TOs, 25th in live ball steals), that means we should expect around 6 or 7 live ball opportunities this game, and we should absolutely be running on those to get easy buckets before the zone sets up. Getting about 10 points running off of turnovers could make a huge difference in a slow, grinding game.

3) Break down the zone without turnovers. Beating the zone consistently requires working methodically through it. Yes we can, and should, shoot over it enough to force the wings and guards to honor Ty and Kyle. But at the end of the day you have to get some shots at the rim, and that means trying to dissect the zone gaps. If you've got five minutes, I highly recommend watching this video tutorial on YouTube of the Wisconsin Badgers systematically shredding 'Cuse right up the middle through excellent ball movement. What did the Badgers not do in this video? Turn it over. The lazy approach to thinking about attacking the middle of the 2-3 zone is to shoot from the FT line. But the best teams get the ball to the high post and, once they draw defenders, very quickly find the open shooter or cutter. This requires excellent ball security and snap decision making, along with just enough height to be able to shoot from that position, so I think Devon Hall becomes the primary option here, with Ty Jerome and Wilkins in limited stretches. I'm not sure I'm comfortable enough seeing anyone else in our primary rotation work out of this spot because of turnover concerns. I should note that the 'Cuse defense in that video, the 2016-17 version, was much, much worse than the one we'll see tonight, so do not expect a lot of those passes to be as readily available.


Gapping the Zone

Updated on January 8, 2018 by Seattle Hoo

Syracuse comes into every season with the same main characteristics.  They play the Boeheim 2-3 zone on defense, they play Heroball on offense, and they play fewer players than Duke. To his credit, Boeheim does not whine about his thin bench when they lose. A lot of people say Boeheim whines all the time, but I've always found him kind of funny. A lot of people also say he can't coach, but from where I'm sitting, he does an excellent job at coaching. I won't discuss any specific past examples; just take my word for this.

Within those three main characteristics, they vary.  The zone is not the same from game to game as Boeheim customizes it for each opponent. He will make adjustments within a game if he is able. Who the Hero is on offense and how they get him his shots will be tweaked based on personnel. And how tight the rotation is depends on the availability of talent. This Syracuse team might have the fewest players available of any Syracuse team we've seen.

The Orange are another opponent that should leave Isaiah Wilkins free to do his thing of being in three places at once and blowing everything up. They do not have an interior player who is going to be a threat to shoot the three or drive. Jack Salt will probably match up with 7-2 Paschal Chukwu who is three inches taller and 30 pounds lighter than Salt with an even more limited offensive repertoire.  He makes the zone forbidding and helps on the offensive boards, but when he sets high screens, you're not all that worried about him. The rest of their bigs are suitable for the Zay treatment and their lack of deep shooting means he can safely wander and recover. Look for The Zay to use his blink power often. Also look for him to hedge screens aggressively. Cuse is a team with talented drivers, but they turn the ball over and only Frank Howard shoots above 35% from three (with his makes coming largely on open shots).

On offense, Zay is a candidate for that high post area due to his high-low passing and mid-range jumper. Given how off the jumper has been and his reluctance to shoot first, he might be better off patrolling the wings or setting high screens. If the Hoos are going small because Chukwu is on the bench (he only plays 21mpg), Zay could be working the baseline to get behind the zone.

Sharon Cox-Ponder for HOOS Place
Trading cookie recipes, we're sure

The challenge that Syracuse provides Virginia's defense is that it has 3 Heroballers who are 6-5 to 6-8, and nobody shorter than 6-5 plays. This makes the Cuse a difficult defensive matchup for Nigel Johnson. Posting Johnson up is not a big concern because of the ready ability for our bigs to help off of theirs, but shooting over him or taking him into the lane and overpowering him could be a fruitful tactic for them.  Nigel can counter that by using his quickness to get into the body of Howard on the dribble, and his anticipation to get steals. In fact, Cuse turns the ball over 13 times per game, for a 19.6% TO% per Kenpom, placing them at #217 in the NCAA. Howard alone averages over 4 per game. Given my rule of thumb that quickness beats size in basketball, Nigel could potentially disrupt their offense and get a couple more of those dunks.

Johnson could be key on offense dribbling into the zone and making it shift and react, but he's going to have to be very careful with his reads, because Cuse shows you weird shit from that zone. They don't react to penetration necessarily the same as other zone teams. As long as they are, the 6-1 Johnson could find himself like the Hobbits in the Old Forest if he is not careful. Pushing the ball and attacking them before they get all five players back and in position is one way Johnson could help, but I think the world might explode if UVA did that too often.  Can reality contain it?

This matchup is tailor-made for Devon Hall. With Howard at 6-5, Tyus Battle at 6-6, and Oshae Brissett at 6-8, Hall's size and strength will be invaluable on defense, and also help him be able to penetrate the zone and have good vision.  He also is UVA's top three-point shooter by percentage, so look for him to spot up when Wilkins or Ty Jerome gets the ball in the middle of the zone. Those catch-and-shoot threes from the corner and wing area are lethal. 



Steel yourself for a grinder of a game. In some ways its good this isn't a national TV audience because that would mean all of America listening to two hours of passive-aggressive commentary about our style and pace. Two patient offenses, two suffocating half-court defenses, and this game is likely to not reach 60 possessions. 

There's no reason to think Syracuse's offense is going to have much success in this one; keep Brissett off the line, limit them to single digit O-Reb's, and I do not see them shooting well at all. So this is entirely going to come down to how well we execute against their zone. This is maybe the best half-court defense we've seen this year, on par with WVU's to be sure. We have to be aggressive attacking the gaps but also secure with the ball, both on the drive and the pass. The first half is probably going to be ugly as we (a) probe the zone to find the gaps and (b) work up the aggression to attack it instead of passively passing around it and shooting over it. But by the second half, we should be okay, wearing down their overworked starters and getting comfortable against their D.

Hoos Win - 58-47