I fully admit, I didn’t see a berth in the NCAA Tournament coming. I talked about it here, as well as other places, and to me a 19-13 record with five losses in the last six games just didn’t seem strong enough. Obviously, the NCAA Tournament committee thought otherwise, and the five top 50 victories for Syracuse won out, and the 10-seeded Orange will take on the 7-seeded Dayton Flyers on Friday. And this time, it’s personal.
Well, not really. But let’s pretend that it is, because amazingly, for the first time in program history, the Orange will be facing the same team in two consecutive NCAA Tournament games, after Dayton knocked the Orange out of the tournament in the program’s last appearance back in 2014.
So what kind of a team is Syracuse facing off against on Friday when they head to St. Louis to take on Archie Miller’s team? Well, the first thing Syracuse fans will note is that, other than 6-foot-11, 260 pound freshman Steve McElvene and 6-foot-9, 244 pound freshman Sam Miller, it’s not a particularly big club. And while McElvene logs about 18 minutes per game, Miller checks in for fewer than 10, and neither player actually starts (McElvene has started 17 games, but has been supplanted).
The starting five for Dayton includes 6-foot-5 guard Charles Cooke, 6-foot-2 guard Scoochie Smith, 6-foot guard Kyle Davis, and 6-foot-6 forwards Dyshawn Pierre and Kendall Pollard. Both Pierre and Pollard weigh in at 210 pounds, and are the two heaviest starters, with the three guards all weighing in at about 190 pounds or under.
But that obviously doesn’t mean that the Flyers can’t produce, and there’s certainly a reason they’re 25-7 on the year. Now, you might be wondering who they’ve played, and who’ve they beaten? Among the more notable victories are Monmouth, Vanderbilt, Davidson, St. Bonaventure, Iowa, and VCU, as well as a couple victories over lower tier Power 5 clubs in Alabama and Arkansas.
Among the seven losses are two against St. Joseph’s, one against St. Bonaventure, one to Rhode Island, one to La Salle, one to Chattanooga, and one a blowout loss against Xavier. Really, the only “bad” losses there are URI and La Salle, as St. Joseph’s won the Atlantic 10, St. Bonaventure probably should have made the tournament, Xavier has a chance to make a Final Four run, and Chattanooga made the Big Dance and has a chance at pulling off a first round upset.
La Salle, meanwhile, finished the year 9-22 and URI went 17-15, making each of those losses stand out like a sore thumb. The La Salle loss is basically Dayton’s version of the St. John’s loss for Syracuse, no disrespect intended to former Syracuse player and future La Salle player BJ Johnson’s club.
For the year, the Flyers scored the ball decently, averaging 73.5 points per game, but really earned some victories on the defensive end, allowing just 65.8 points per game, the 39th best scoring defense in the nation. On the flip side, Syracuse averaged 70.2 points scored and 65.7 points allowed, placing the Orange just ahead of Dayton as the 37th best scoring defense in America.
One place where Dayton struggles a bit, however, is defending the three – which could play to Syracuse’s advantage if Michael Gbinije, Malachi Richardson, Trevor Cooney, and Tyler Lydon are on. Dayton ranks 201st in the country in opponent three point percentage, with its foes shooting 34.9% from beyond the arc on the season. Syracuse finished the year shooting 36.1% from deep as a team, and there’s a solid chance this game could be won at the three point line.
Meanwhile, Dayton is really only an average three point shooting team, hitting 34.6% from deep – good for 177th in the nation. The Orange, on the other hand, excel defending the perimeter, with opponents making just 30.4% of their attempts from long range – good for the 13th best three point defense in the country.
But Syracuse will certainly have to defend Cooke and Smith in particular outside the arc, with Cooke hitting 40.7% from long range while Smith hits 37.3%. Both players are the most prolific deep shooters as well, with Cooke hitting 57 treys this year while Smith has knocked down 44. Davis and Pierre can also knock down shots from the perimeter. If you’re looking for someone other than Cooke to have a big day scoring the basketball, Pierre is the likeliest candidate.
The senior has scored more than 1,400 points in his career, and this season is second on the team with 13.0 points per game while leading the Flyers with 8.6 rebounds per game. Pierre averages 2.4 offensive rebounds per game, so the Orange will need to keep a body on the athletic, hard-working forward to keep him from getting too many second chance points. Pierre shoots 35.6% from deep, and is the team’s best free throw shooter as well, so you’re probably starting to piece together why I think he could be the X-factor in Friday’s matchup.
Cooke, meanwhile, leads the Flyers in scoring with 15.7 points per game and adds 6.0 boards, and the Trenton, New Jersey native will be the focal point of the offense for Archie Miller’s club, as usual. Smith averages 11.7 points and 4.3 assists per game, and the Flyers will need him to protect the ball against an opportunistic Syracuse defense.
Dayton turns the ball over at a pretty good clip, giving it away 416 times this season – a mark that ranks them 217th in the nation in that category. The Flyers don’t turn over their opponents particularly well, either, ranking 194th in the nation at forcing turnovers, having hounded opponents into 397 on the year.
By contrast, Syracuse ranks 116th in turnovers with 385 on the year, and the Orange rank 116th in turnovers forced, as well, having forced 430 on the year. Neither team particularly excels at protecting the ball or forcing their opponents into bad decisions, but the edge here certainly seems to go to Syracuse.
One interesting statistic is that, believe it or not, despite the lack of size for the Flyers, they rank 58th in the country in blocked shots with 142. Compare that to Syracuse, which ranks 101st in the country with 128 swats, making the Flyers better at protecting the rim than Syracuse up to this point in the year. Obviously, much of that has to do with the competition, as Dayton wasn’t going up against the North Carolinas and Virginias of the world on an almost nightly basis after the New Year, but it’s still an unexpected edge for Dayton.
Dayton also has the edge in terms of depth, with 10 players averaging at least 9.3 minutes per game and an 11th averaging 8.0 minutes per game, but the team’s five starters do still get the bulk of the time on the floor. Cooke, Smith, and Pierre all average more than 31 minutes per night, with Pollard and Davis each getting at least 25 minutes per game.
Given the lack of size, this could be a game where Tyler Roberson shines, if he actually comes to play. It’s also a game wherein Tyler Lydon could have a huge performance, given his size advantage as well as his top notch three point shooting, which should enable him to stretch the floor against an average three point defense.
At the end of the day, if Syracuse can shoot at a solid rate from deep and keep the Flyers off of the offensive glass and play solid interior defense (Dayton will try to penetrate into the lane frequently, meaning Syracuse has to be very aware of backdoor cuts along the baseline), this could, and perhaps, should, be an Orange victory.