If the Syracuse University basketball team has any hopes of making a run and earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament in 2016, then the importance of the team’s upcoming four-game home stand cannot be overstated. Sitting at 13-8 overall and 3-5 in ACC competition, it’s not a stretch to call this section of the season make or break when it comes to any postseason hopes.
The four game stretch kicks off Thursday night with a showdown against Notre Dame, after the Orange fell to Virginia on Sunday in Charlottesville to snap a three game winning streak. The good news comes twofold for Syracuse’s chances to get this crucial stretch off to a good start: with the exception of simply being dominated for most of the game against the Hoos, Jim Boeheim’s squad has been far more competitive in January than they were in December.
And the other piece of good news? Well, you never want to see a kid battling an injury, but Notre Dame will be without leading scorer Demetrius Jackson, who’s sidelined with a hamstring issue. Jackson’s importance to Mike Brey’s team can’t be stressed enough: he’s leading the Irish in points (16.6 PPG), assists (5.0 APG), and steals (23 on the year), and in conference play, he’s been the team’s most prolific shooter, knocking down 15 triples in seven ACC tilts.
Obviously, as with any other Notre Dame team, this year’s squad has plenty of shooters to fill the void, starting with VJ Beachem, a 6-foot-8 sophomore who is the team’s top shooter on the year, hitting 42.3% on 104 attempts. It’s important to note, however, that Beachem’s numbers have taken a big dip in conference play, where he’s only shooting at a clip of 26.9% from deep.
Steve Vasturia – who I’m pretty sure has been at Notre Dame since 1988 – is a 6-foot-5 guard who can also stroke it from deep, and the junior (seriously? Only a junior? Someone check on that) has knocked down 27 from long range on the season at a mark of 38.6%, including 40.9% against ACC foes. In all, six different players have gotten starts for the Irish this season. Five of them shoot at least 36% from long distance on the year. In other words, the 2-3 zone is going to have its work cut out for it on Thursday night in the friendly confines of the Carrier Dome.
The Irish will also give Syracuse big men Dajuan Coleman and Tyler Roberson a challenge inside with Zach Auguste, as the 6-foot-10, 245 pound post player heads into Thursday night averaging 13.9 points (on 54.1% shooting from the field) and 10.1 rebounds per game. He and Bonzie Colson, a 6-foot-5, 225 pound forward, have combined for 99 offensive rebounds on the year, which accounts for almost exactly half of the team’s offensive boards all season. It’ll be essential for Coleman, Roberson, and Tyler Lydon to keep them off the glass and limit second chance opportunities.
If you’re wondering what kind of record the Irish have put together this year, they head into Thursday with a mark of 14-5, including 5-2 in ACC play. However, a couple of their losses are a little rough, having fallen to Monmouth and Alabama (11-8 in the mediocre SEC) early in the year, with their more respectable losses coming at the hands of Indiana, Virginia, and Pittsburgh. The Irish can play, but they can certainly be beaten. They’re also remarkably consistent with their scoring, having finished with between 81-87 points in 12 of their 19 games this season.
Of course, with Jackson out for Thursday night’s game, the question becomes, how much will that impact Notre Dame’s offense? Every bit of the offense has run through the 6-foot-1 junior all year, and now for the first time all season, Mike Brey’s club will have to figure out what they look like without their star.
Looking ahead at Syracuse’s upcoming schedule, there are some very winnable games ahead: Notre Dame (14-5), Georgia Tech (11-8), Virginia Tech (12-8), Florida State (13-7), and at Boston College (7-13), before a difficult matchup at Louisville (16-3) on February 17.
If Syracuse wants any shot at reaching the NCAA Tournament this season, the Orange probably need four wins over this next five game stretch, as they close the season with home games against Pitt and NC State, before heading on the road to face North Carolina and Florida State. It’s likely the Orange will need at least 18 wins heading into the ACC Tournament to keep any hopes of an NCAA berth alive, and a big win at home over Notre Dame on Thursday night would go an awfully long way toward making that a very real possibility.