Matchup Preview: Syracuse at Virginia Tech

Syracuse opens ACC play on the road against the Virginia Tech Hokies. Full preview of the matchup inside.

The Matchup: Syracuse (9-4) vs. Virginia Tech (8-5)
Date: 1/3/14
Time: 12:00pm Eastern
Location: Cassell Coliseum (Blacksburg, VA)
Television: ESPN3

Key Players

SG Trevor Cooney – Syracuse: Cooney’s outside shot has hit a strong level of consistency over the past six or seven games. Beyond that, he has been strong off the bounce, attacked the rim, passed well and been the best defender at the top of the zone on the team. He will need to keep that up as the Orange enter conference play.

C Rakeem Christmas – Syracuse: Remember when Christmas was playing only a few minutes, getting pulled and there was the concern that he would never become a consistent offensive player? Those days are well behind him as Christmas is the best weapon for the Orange. Not only has he developed a strong low-post game, but he has a hook shot, jumper and attacks the rim. Combine that with his solid defense and Christmas is Syracuse’s best option as a go-to player.

SG Adam Smith – Virginia Tech: The Hokies leading scorer, Smith is one of the best outside shooters in the conference. Despite taking nearly five three-pointers per game, he is making almost 48% of his shots from distance. Smith is not a strong defender, but is a solid ball handler. He will test the Orange zone.

SG Justin Bibbs – Virginia Tech: A bigger point guard, Bibbs can score, distribute and rebound. He is a talented offensive player is also hitting 48% of his shots from beyond the arc. As deadly as Bibbs is from the outside, he is also skilled off the bounce. When he gets into the lane, he can dish to open shooters, find a cutting finisher or attack the rim himself. He is easily the Hokies best player despite being a true freshman.

Virginia Tech Offense vs. Syracuse Defense

Virginia Tech is a very good outside shooting team at nearly 41% on the season, led by the aforementioned Smith and Bibbs. They aren’t the only two capable three-point shooters, however. Wing Ahmed Hill point guard Devin Wilson and reserve guard Malik Muller can all hit from beyond the arc.

The key for the zone is to push out on the shooters and prevent open looks. Bibbs will likely try to penetrate and dish to Virginia Tech’s many outside weapons. Some inside out ball movement could also free Bibbs up for some looks as could some ball screens against the top of the zone.

If Syracuse pushes the zone to the outside, Virginia Tech only has one inside threat in junior Joey Van Zegeren. The 6-foot-10 junior only had six points and five rebounds against Syracuse last year but has improved his offensive game. He is up to 10 points per game and is shooting 60% from the floor.

Despite that, Van Zegeren is not a great rebounder for his size. He struggles with physical play and often plays smaller than his frame. Other than Van Zegeren, Virginia Tech only has two players over 6-foot-5 in Shane Henry and Satchel Pierce. Neither play more than 11 minutes per game, but is a 7-footer with some skills but is foul prone.

Syracuse Offense vs. Virginia Tech Defense

Virginia Tech is going to play primarily man against Syracuse. They are a solid defensive team, holding opponents to just 40% shooting and 32% from beyond the arc. They force nearly 15 turnovers per game as well.

The key will be how Syracuse freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph handles the aggressive Hokie defense. His ball handling and decision-making will be critical.

Syracuse’s big advantage is on the inside. Rakeem Christmas will have an athleticism and strength advantage as will Chris McCullough. McCullough, however, has been struggling in recent games. This could be a chance for him to break out of his slump. Christmas should have a field day and could rack up yet another double-double.

The Syracuse backcourt will be tested by aggressive, physical Hokie guards. This will be a matchup where the Orange do not have a size advantage in the backcourt. A key aspect will be how Trevor Cooney responds to that and whether the Orange can get him open looks. Expect Virginia Tech to key on him. Justin Biggs may draw that assignment.

Michael Gbinije and Tyler Roberson are both interesting options for Syracuse. Their combination of size and skill will really test the undersized Hokies. Gbinije has been playing good basketball lately and could continue that on Saturday.

Final Thoughts

Syracuse appears to have turned a corner with their play over the last few weeks. That will really be tested as they open up conference play. If Syracuse does not play well, Virginia Tech can absolutely beat them. They have strong guard play and are solid defensively. This will be a fun start to ACC basketball.

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