Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Preview: Syracuse at No. 15 Notre Dame

Irish look to rebound from first conference loss vs. long-time foil Syracuse.

GAME NO. 20: SYRACUSE (11-8; 3-3) AT NOTRE DAME (16-3; 5-1)

-- Date: January 21, 2017
-- Place: Purcell Pavilion, Notre Dame, Ind.
-- TV: ESPN
-- Opponent Nickname: Orange
-- Head coach: Jim Boeheim (996-350 in 41 seasons at Syracuse; 895-350 including wins vacated by the NCAA)
-- Location: Syracuse, N.Y.
-- 2015-16 record: (23-14; 9-9)
-- 2016 Post-season: NCAA FINAL FOUR
-- Point spread: Notre Dame is favored by 8

A NEW SHADE OF ORANGE

A 90th ranked defense and 49th ranked offense? Eight losses in their first 18 games?

Jim Boeheim’s present-day Syracuse squad – at least at present – bears little resemblance to the powerhouses of season’s past, though last year’s Final Four participant dropped 12 regular season contests before finding its sea legs and roaring through the Midwest region. (As a reminder, in last year’s Elite 8, Syracuse overcame a 15-point deficit in under 10 minutes to upset Virginia – a team built to protect such leads)

Not only is the Orange a bit out of character this winter, it’s unrecognizable to most opposing fan bases. The Orange will feature five different starters from last year’s surprisingly easy 81-66 victory over Notre Dame in the Carrier Dome. Among the squad’s current regulars, only sophomore forward Tyrone Lydon played meaningful minutes that evening, scoring 15 points and grabbing 10 board off the bench.

And it was Lydon that kept the Orange afloat in their last outing, an 85-68 loss at No. 9 North Carolina, scoring 26 points on just 14 shots. On the season, Lydon’s consistent efforts are most often aided by Nebraska transfer (via Kansas) Andrew White. White leads Boeheim’s bunch in minutes (34.7), points per game (15.8), 3-point shots made (59) and attempted (146), hitting at a 40 percent clip.

Another newcomer, freshman guard Tyus Battle averages just under 10 points per contest while connecting on 43.4 percent of shots from beyond the arc. (Lydon comes in at 43.5% to round out Boeheim’s quality trio of marksman). 

Senior guard John Gillon, formerly of Colorado State (and prior, Arkansas Little-Rock) chips in with nine points and a team-high 5.1 assists per game. The final piece of the puzzle, freshman big man Taurean Thomas (6’10” 225) has been inconsistent of late, scoring 18 with eight boards in a loss at Virginia Tech while playing sparingly in two previous ACC wins over Pittsburgh and Miami. Earlier this week, Thomas earned just 12 minutes at North Carolina in a matchup vs. the Tar Heels’ never-ending run of big men.

Look for Thomas to earn more minutes than his norm at the back of the Orange 2-3 Zone in South Bend.

IT CAN’T LAST…RIGHT?

Notre Dame hit a remarkable 15 of its 21 3-point field goal attempts Wednesday in Tallahassee. In shooter’s parlance, they’re the polar opposite of “due.”

But how much of a regression to the mean can Mike Brey’s Irish afford against the lengthy challenge provided by Syracuse’s famed zone defense?  

In addition to Boeheim’s aforementioned pair of swingmen in White and Battle – measuring 6’7” and 6’6”, respectively – there’s leading rebounder Lydon at 6’9”, plus a potential frontcourt pairing of the freshman Thomas (6’10” 225) and senior Tyler Roberson (6’8”) off the bench.

While Notre Dame rebounds better at home, second chance points are likely to be a premium for the hosts against the defensive length and second jump bounce of the Orange.

One day after the best meaningful shooting performance (in defeat) in college basketball’s three-point era, another two handfuls of triples will likely be required to subdue Syracuse at a sold-out Purcell Pavilion:

-- Steve Vasturia: Connected on 7 of last 10 shots from beyond the arc over the last two outings.

-- Matt Farrell: Has made good on 16 of his 32 3-point shot attempts in league play.

-- V.J. Beachem: Has hit 11 of his last 24 shots from long range after beginning Big East play 0-for-5 in that regard at Pittsburgh and failing attempt a triple vs. Louisville one game later.

-- Rex Pflueger and T.J. Gibbs: The freshmen tandem has hit 11 of its combined 27 3-point shot attempts (Pflueger 7-for-17) in conference action. Sophomore sniper Matt Ryan is just 2-for-6 in that regard…he could match his total attempts in ACC play to date on Saturday alone should he find the range early vs. Syracuse’s 2-3 Zone.

WHOSE HOUSE IS IT?

Jim Boeheim has won 12 of his 17 contests in South Bend including 7 of 10 against Mike Brey. The Irish have dropped each of their three contests vs. the Orange since joining the ACC and four consecutive since upsetting 20-0, No. 1 ranked Syracuse at the Purcell Pavilion in January 2012 when both were members of the Big East.

In short, the Irish historically struggle vs. Syracuse’s zone and plethora of long-limbed athletes. The Orange change personnel – not purpose and approach.

At 5-1 in league play but just 2-0 at home, Notre Dame’s remaining slate on the Joyce Center Floor can be ranked as such (hardest to “easiest”):

  1. No. 16 Virginia: Brey has never defeated a Tony Bennett-coached team (0-5).
  2. No. 10 Florida State: One of the nation’s best teams, and along with defending champion Villanova, the best squad the Irish will face until at least a potential Sweet 16 matchup vs. a No. 1 seed.
  3. No. 18 Duke: Talent is plentiful. Notre Dame owns them of late, but that dominance won’t last forever vs. the Blue Devils.
  4. Syracuse: A study in inconsistency…but when they’re good, they’re plenty good.
  5. Georgia Tech: Have played the Irish to the wire six times over the last three seasons, regardless of the disparate fortunes of the programs during that span.
  6. Boston College: Improved, there’s a chip on the Eagles shoulder, and Boston College will face the Irish twice in two weeks with the latter contest in South Bend.
  7. Wake Forest: Certainly as good as either Tech or BC on paper, but not a team the Irish should fear at home.

A 5-2 home finish (thus, 7-2 in the end) should be the minimum goal for a Notre Dame team tied for first through the season’s first 6 of 18 contests.

Today’s sold-out affair at the Purcell is a must-win if the Irish are to contend for an ACC regular season crown and an NCAA Tournament seed along the top three lines.

After dropping their first game of ACC play in Tallahassee on Wednesday, the Irish are a good bet to bounce back.

O’Malley/Prister Prediction: Notre Dame 80 Syracuse 74


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