SF Michael Gbinije – Syracuse: How good has Gbinije been lately? He is averaging 21 points, five assists, four rebounds and four assists per game while shooting 63% from the floor and 50% from beyond the arc. Gbinije is playing at a very high level, and Syracuse will need all of that to pull the upset on Saturday.
C Rakeem Christmas – Syracuse: Christmas is coming off of his worst performance of the season against Boston College. Now he faces his toughest matchup of the season. With a chance to make a national statement, expect the best from Syracuse’s Rak.
C Jahlil Okafor – Duke: Okafor can take over a game and carry his team to victory any time he steps onto the floor. In this one, he faces Rakeem Christmas in a battle of the two best low-post players in the conference. Look for both to have to be at their best on Saturday.
SG Quinn Cook – Duke: Cook is a typical Duke guard. A strong on-ball defender, quick, athletic and a deadly shooter from the outside. Cook will look to penetrate the Syracuse zone and find openings on the perimeter. Syracuse’s corners have been vulnerable this season, so don’t be surprised if Cook is perched there from time to time.
Duke Offense vs. Syracuse Defense
Duke solved the mystery of the zone last season in both matchups. Their ability to move the ball quickly and efficiently forces the zone to rotate faster than they would like, leaving certain spots vulnerable.
Combine that with Duke’s bigs being able to handle and pass, and you have a recipe for success against the Orange 2-3 zone.
The backcourt combination of Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones will be tough for Syracuse to handle. The quickness of both with the ability of both to hit from the outside may force the Orange to pick their poison.
Jones will be a particularly tough matchup as he can do so many things with the ball. He has exceptional court vision and floor awareness, both of which are ideal for attacking the zone.
On the inside, Okafor will certainly test Rakeem Christmas. With much of the offense flowing through Duke’s center, Christmas has to be smart in order to stay out of foul trouble. If the Blue Devils are successful in getting Christmas off the court with early fouls, Okafor will torch redshirt freshman Chinonso Obokoh inside.
Justice Winslow and Amile Jefferson round out the frontcourt for Duke. Both are extremely athletic, and Jefferson had a very productive game in the Dome last season.
Duke will attack the glass hard, making Tyler Roberson’s presence critical for Syracuse. He has to be productive and prevent the Blue Devils from having second or third opportunities. Roberson is even more important because when B.J. Johnson comes into the game, Syracuse has a serious size disadvantage.
Don’t be surprised if Duke uses Winslow, Jefferson or Okafor at the free-throw line to facilitate to others. All three are talented enough to handle that role.
The key for Syracuse is to push out on the shooters, stay smart in their rotations and trap when given the opportunity. The Orange may have to force turnovers in this one in order to get some easy buckets and gain momentum.
Syracuse Offense vs. Duke Defense
Duke loves to play aggressive, in your face man defense. This season, however, they have been sprinkling in some zone looks. No doubt a result of Coach K and Jim Boeheim’s time together coaching the US Olympic team.
Syracuse generally gets consistent production from only three players. Rakeem Christmas, Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney. They need each to play at a high level to pull off the win. Gbinije has been lighting it up as of late, sparked by his increased aggression attacking the rim. Seeing how Winslow guards him will be an interesting factor to watch.
Trevor Cooney will likely be followed by Cook. Cooney is arguably Syracuse’s best outside shooter, and Duke will make sure they do not give him any easy looks. Cooney will have to adjust by using ball screens, off the ball movement and the dribble drive to create some space.
Syracuse will look to establish Rakeem Christmas in this one, Feeding him in the low-post and getting some early production will open up the rest of the floor for Cooney, Gbinije and others.
Maybe the most critical matchup on this end of the floor will be Tyus Jones versus Kaleb Joseph. Two true freshman point guards on a big stage. Joseph has struggled with decision-making and unforced turnovers this season, while Jones has been very steady for the Blue Devils.
Jones is a skilled defender and will pressure Joseph throughout. Joseph is coming off of a strong second half against Boston College, and will look to continue that against Duke. He will have to be solid for the Orange to have a chance.
Syracuse is the underdog here, no question about it. Duke has more depth and talent on the roster. The Blue Devils are more versatile on both ends of the floor and are a legitimate national championship contender. Syracuse has the crowd and the environment on their side. This bunch seems to like playing the underdog role. Can they pull off a huge upset to give themselves a memorable moment during a season with much turmoil? Here’s hoping this year’s matchup is as entertaining as last season’s.