Syracuse’s Turbulent Season Comes to a Head Against No. 9 Duke
By A.J. Fabbri
Syracuse Men’s Basketball Beat Reporter
The Syracuse basketball season has been defined by two words: expectations and limitations. Preseason expectations were cautiously optimistic about a team returning almost none of its scoring. During a brutal three-game losing streak around Thanksgiving, where Jim Boeheim’s squad looked woefully overmatched, many questioned if the NIT was even a possibility. But NCAA Tournament hopes were resurrected after a five-game ACC win streak.
However, the Orange can’t quite cross into elite territory because of their overmatched big men and recent shooting woes.
Expectations and limitations were both on display in Syracuse’s (13-9, 6-5 Atlantic Coast) 97-88 loss to No. 9 Duke (18-3, 8-2 Atlantic Coast) Saturday night inside the Carrier Dome.
After a nip and tuck first half, Duke turned on the afterburners and dropped 57 points in the second half to blow by the Orange.
Vernon Carey, Jr. was another in a long line of big men who tormented the SU zone. The 6 foot 10 270 pound freshman bulldozed his way to 26 points and 17 rebounds.
“It was hard for us big guys,” freshman forward Quincy Guerrier admitted. “We tried our best, but [Carey, Jr.] was too physical.”
Opponents are exploiting the backline of the Syracuse zone. Earlier this season, Jim Boeheim adjusted the defense to limit three-point shots. But that has left Guerrier, Bourama Sidibe, and Marek Dolezaj defenseless against skilled big men.
“We’re just not good in the middle. We can’t stop people in there,” Boeheim said after the beat down.
Big men like Mike Watkins of Penn State, Luka Garza of Iowa, and Tevin Mack of Clemson have dominated in games against the Orange. That trio averaged 23.3 points against the shaky SU backline.
“Everybody looks good against us. We make big guys look like all-Americans down there,” Boeheim added.
Guerrier is loaded with potential and promises to be a primary piece of the puzzle, but that will come within the next two seasons. He is still adjusting to the physicality of the country’s elite.
Dolezaj, who posted a career-high 22 points against Duke, is beloved by Orange fans for his heart and hustle. Others are taking note.
“Dolezaj has got to be the most improved player in the conference,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He is such a good player.”
Although scrappy, the 180-pound junior simply does not possess the physical tools to compete with ACC heavyweights.
Bourama Sidibe seems outmatched against every big-time opponent, and it just feels like he’s always in foul trouble by the time the first media timeout rolls around.
Duke finished with 44 points in the paint. The blueprint is out on how to beat the Orange zone. Rather than chuck from downtown, utilizing a capable post player with vision and power will collapse SU defenders. With Syracuse’s lack of depth, the Orange will run thin.
SU’s only chance for victory is to start scoring at will. Typically, the three-headed monster of Buddy Boeheim, Elijah Hughes, and Joe Girard III has willed the Orange to victory from beyond the arc.
But the three-point shooting has abandoned Syracuse.
The Orange came into the Duke contest shooting 32.5% from three, 5th best in the conference.
They finished the game 6-26.
Hughes and Boeheim came into the game as the second-best three-point shooting duo in the country. Yet they were held to a combined 3-16 from behind the arc against the Blue Devils.
The Orange have shot above 30% from three as a team just once in their last five games, posting a 30.8% clip in the road victory against Notre Dame back on January 22nd.
“We’ve got guys in the gym every day. I’m not concerned about how we’re shooting the ball,” Hughes said after the game.
SU’s hopes for an NCAA Tournament bid are on life support. Crucial matchups against NC State, Florida State, and Louisville loom.
The best way to resurrect those hopes is with a convincing win over Wake Forest at home to get back on track. From there, it will be nip and tuck, just like every Syracuse basketball season seems to be.
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