It hasn’t been said often this year that the Syracuse basketball team will actually have an edge when it comes to size on the interior, but that’s the case when the Orange host Virginia Tech on Tuesday night. The Hokies don’t have a lot of size in general, but they’ve taken a serious hit with a broken foot for 6-foot-6 forward Chris Clarke, and tomorrow night is one of the few times the Orange should be able to exploit their interior advantage.
Virginia Tech is basically a four man show with the injury to Clarke, as they’ll rely heavily on 6-foot-1 Seth Allen, 6-foot-5 Jalen Hudson, 6-foot-5 Justin Bibbs, and 6-foot-7 Zach LeDay. Outside of those four players, there hasn’t been a lot of production for Buzz Williams’ crew. At 6-foot-10, 240 pounds, freshman center Kerry Blackshear has shown some flashes of being a contributor, averaging 6.8 points and 4.6 boards per game, but has scored a combined four points in the last two games after scoring 12 in a loss to North Carolina.
The Hokies head into Tuesday night’s game the losers of four straight, after opening the year 4-1 in ACC play. The losses have gotten progressively more lopsided, falling by two to Notre Dame; by five to UNC; by eight to Louisville; and finally, by 19 to Pittsburgh last night. Only six players scored against Pitt, and only four players found their way into the scoring column in the loss to Louisville, in which the Cards hit 12-of-18 three pointers to hand Virgina Tech the loss.
For the most part, the Hokies have lost to exactly who they were expected to lose to, with the lone exception being a surprising win over Virginia. They only turned it over eight times in that game, and not surprisingly, in three of their four ACC wins, they’ve had eight or fewer turnovers (six against Wake Forest, and four against NC State. In their fourth conference win, a narrow victory over Georgia Tech, they turned it over 14 times but outscored the Jackets 28-to-9 from the free throw line).
At 6-foot-7, 235 pounds, LeDay is the go-to-guy for the Hokies, averaging 16.0 points and 8.1 rebounds while shooting 47.7% from the field, 42.9% from long distance, and 78.8% from the free throw line. He and Allen have been the most productive scorers all season, with the 6-foot-1 Allen averaging 14.7 points but shooting a dismal 28.3% from long distance.
The Hokies in general are a decent, if unspectacular three point shooting team, hitting 35.3% as a team from long range. Bibbs is easily the team’s best deep threat, as the sophomore connects on 50.5% from deep and averages 12.0 points per game on the year. Of course, his production has been up and down throughout the year. Take, for example, a three game stretch in which he scored three points against Duke, 32 against Wake Forest, and then eight against Georgia Tech.
Hudson, meanwhile, is another 6-foot-5 sophomore who averages 8.6 points per game and recently scored 27 against Louisville. He also scored 14 against UNC and 13 against Pitt, though his recent uptick in production goes a bit against the norm. He’s been held to single digits in 15 of the team’s 22 games, including scoring just two points against Virginia and Wake.
I mentioned the fact that Syracuse’s size will actually be an advantage for once, and nowhere is that more clear than on the backboards. Virginia Tech has been out-rebounded in 11 straight games, and 12 of the last 14 – including losing the battle on the glass to Radford. Tyler Roberson could have a field day, if he and the other Syracuse big men can stay out of foul trouble. Because this leads us to the next point about Virginia Tech: they draw a hell of a lot of fouls.
For the year, the Hokies are averaging 20.1 made free throws per game. Not 20 attempts – 20 makes. They’ve attempted 644 free throws this season, an average of 29.3 attempts per game. With an average of about 76 points per game, that means more than a quarter of all of their points come at the foul line. Opponents, meanwhile, have attempted just 417 free throws against them. Syracuse has had some issues keeping the big men out of foul trouble of late, and this could become a real issue against the Hokies and might wind up being a reason that Buzz Williams could keep his team in the game.
The good news is that they’re not particularly strong on the offensive glass, averaging just 8.0 offensive boards per game in ACC play, while surrendering more than 12 offensive rebounds per game to conference opponents. Statistically, they’re one of the worst rebounding teams, from a percentage standpoint, in the ACC. They rank 13th in defensive rebounding percentage – though it should be noted that the team pulling up the rear in that category is the Orange. Fortunately, Syracuse is seventh in the ACC in offensive rebound percentage, while Virginia Tech is 11th. Second chance points are not a particularly common occurrence for the Hokies.
On paper, the 12-10 Hokies should be resume fodder for the Orange, as Syracuse continues to turn things around and climb up the ACC standings ladder. Obviously, it all depends on which version of Syracuse we get on Tuesday night, but the lack of any real inside presence (Virginia Tech is near the bottom of the pack in the ACC in blocked shots, as well, with just 81 in 22 games), it looks like a potentially good opportunity for Roberson, Coleman, and Tyler Lydon to have big days, while Michael Gbinije and Malachi Richardson should have plenty of room to get into the lane and finish.
My prediction: Syracuse 81, Virginia Tech 68.