When you’re in a conference like the ACC, you really don’t get many nights off. Well, unless you’re playing against Boston College. Notre Dame is certainly no Boston College, and as the Syracuse Orange go to South Bend tonight to take on the Irish, it’s going to be an incredibly tall order for Jim Boeheim’s squad to knock off Mike Brey’s club.
Notre Dame enters tonight’s game ranked No. 9 in the nation with a 24-4 record, with two of those losses coming against top five teams. So far this season, the Irish have lost to Providence back on November 23, but didn’t lose again until a six point loss to Virginia in January. A four point loss at Pitt followed on January 31, and then the worst loss of the season – at least in terms of margin – came on February 7, when they were blown out by Duke by 30 points.
One important thing to note about those four losses: only one of them came in South Bend, and that was the defeat against Virginia. So needless to say, winning on the home court of the Irish is incredibly difficult. Duke failed to do it, and so did Michigan State. Outside of those two, of course, the Irish haven’t exactly hosted a murderer’s row of opponents, and they were taken to two overtimes at home by Georgia Tech. Still, it’s going to be a tall order against a team that scores the ball as well as Notre Dame does.
The Irish are second in the ACC,. and 10th in the country, with an average of 79.8 points per game, winning by an average margin of 14.4 points per game, the third highest in the conference. They’re also second in the country in field goal percentage, hitting 51.3% collectively, and shoot an incredible 40.4% from three as a team. In other words, this is a team designed to tear apart Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone, and the Orange may struggle to keep up on offense if the team’s current shooting trends continue.
The Orange are obviously not the strong shooting team that Notre Dame is, coming in ranked 127th in the country with 69.4 points per game, and 137th in field goal percentage, hitting 44.1% as a team. One are where Syracuse could, and probably should, exploit Notre Dame is on the interior and on the glass. The Orange are 60th in the country in rebounding, which isn’t great, but is still vastly superior to Notre Dame’s national ranking of 213th. Notre Dame is one of the worst rebounding teams in the ACC, and they also don’t turn over their opponents all that much. The Irish only force 11.3 turnovers per game, putting them in the bottom tier in the conference. The Orange, meanwhile, force the second most turnovers in the conference, hounding their opponents into 14 giveaways per game.
Jerian Grant is obviously the centerpiece for Mike Brey’s team, and the ACC Player of the Year candidate is averaging 17.0 points and 6.5 assists per game, while also shooting 35.5% from three point range. Jerami’s big brother has been one of the top players in the nation all year, and will almost certainly garner All-America honors, whether it’s first, second, or third team.
Outside of Grant, the players who could give the Orange the most trouble are Pat Connaughton and Zach Auguste. Connaughton, a 6-foot-5 swingman, averages 13.1 points but, more importantly, hits an almost absurd 44.6% from three point range. The Syracuse defense has done a pretty mediocre job finding shooters for long stretches this year, and that’s been one of the reasons some teams have been able to be relatively successful against the zone at times. Kaleb Joseph and Trevor Cooney frequently fail to close out as quickly as they should, and when they do it’s generally with their hands down at their sides. The Syracuse zone needs to be rotating fluidly, quickly, and efficiently, and every close out needs a hand in the shooter’s face if the Orange want any shot at knocking off the Irish. This is not a game to half-ass it with perimeter defense.
If anyone is going to put up numbers on the inside for the Irish, it’ll be the 6-foot-10 Auguste, who is really the team’s only interior presence. Auguste averages 12.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, and he’s shooting better than 60% from the field. Still, every Syracuse fan will probably be willing to let Auguste get his points if it means that the Orange are focused on stopping guys like Grant and Connaughton from getting out on the perimeter.
Other than Auguste, the only player with any real size who sees significant minutes is VJ Beachem, a 6-foot-8, 200 pound sophomore who logs 17.2 minutes per game, averaging 7.6 points but just 1.7 rebounds per game. As you probably could have guessed based on his height to weight ratio, Beachem is a perimeter oriented player, and he definitely has the ability to stroke the three. So far this season, he’s shooting 42.9% from long distance. Amazingly, that’s only the third best percentage on the team.
The best percentage is, of course, Connaughton. The second belongs to 6-foot-1 sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson, who is averaging 12.5 points while shooting 43.6% from long distance. Not only that, he’s also shooting better than 50% from the floor, a pretty remarkable percentage considering the number of three pointers he takes. One more player, 6-foot-5 guard Steve Vasturia, hits better than 40% from three point range, and the sophomore is second on the team in terms of makes, having hit 44 on the year.
The Irish have hit 245 three pointers this season, with five players having hit at least 39 attempts. Syracuse, by contrast, has hit 139 threes, with Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije combining for 109 of those triples. After that, the next highest total is BJ Johnson’s 13 makes. No other player for the Orange has hit more than nine threes.
So obviously, this is a tale of contrasting styles. Notre Dame is almost entirely perimeter oriented, and they excel at playing with that style. Syracuse has struggled pretty mightily throughout the year from three, and if they want to keep pace with the Irish tonight, they need to recognize the massive advantage in the post and work toward pounding the rock inside, and hitting the offensive glass hard to get as many second and third chances as possible. Notre Dame is going to score, so Syracuse is going to need to create as many extra opportunities as possible since the team is far less efficient on offense than Notre Dame.
Playing a hot shooting team in their gym is a difficult task. Notre Dame is certainly beatable, but this is a potentially disastrous matchup for the Orange based on the way the 2-3 zone has fallen below defensive expectations for much of the year. It’s not a terrible version of Jim Boeheim’s zone, but it’s not as good as it has been in recent years, and it needs to be at its absolute best if the Orange want any chance of knocking off the Irish. It certainly doesn’t help that Trevor Cooney may already be limited thanks to his bad back, an issue that has clearly impacted his shooting. Cooney has missed his last 13 attempts from long range, which is a bad sign for a team that needs all the points it can get against a high scoring team like Notre Dame.