Matchup Preview: Syracuse at Duke

We breakdown everything about the Syracuse vs Duke basketball matchup including how the Orange will attack the aggressive Blue Devils' defense and how Duke will try to defeat the vaunted 2-3 zone.

The Matchup: Syracuse (18-10, 9-6) at #4 Duke (25-3, 12-3)
Date: 2/28/15
Time: 7:00pm Eastern
Location: Cameron Indoor Stadium (Durham. N.C.)
Television: ESPN

Key Players

SF Michael Gbinije – Syracuse: After a five game stretch where Gbinije was arguably the best player in the conference, he has come back down to earth in the last two games. At least, on the offensive end. He still helps force turnovers and can run the offense well. Gbinije had six steals in Syracuse’s upset win over Notre Dame on Tuesday. He had a big game against the Blue Devils last time and need another strong effort if Syracuse is going to leave Cameron with a victory.

C Rakeem Christmas – Syracuse: Christmas struggled in the first matchup, missing a lot of shots he normally makes. He will need to bounce back with a superb effort this time around. It will not only help Syracuse in this game, but boost his NBA Draft stock.

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. He got the better of this matchup in the round one, but round two is on his home turf. With the way the Duke guards penetrate and draw the Syracuse zone, he could be in for another big night. He is coming off 30-point effort against Virginia Tech as he returned from an ankle injury.

PG Tyus Jones – Duke: Jones is perfect for this Duke squad. He is smart, takes care of the basketball, can shoot, drives well, has exceptional court vision, passes well and has ice in his veins. His penetration is key to beating the Syracuse zone.

Duke Offense vs. Syracuse Defense

Duke solved the mystery of the zone in the first matchup after second half adjustments allowed their guards to get into the lane and find players for easy buckets. 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. Winslow was fantastic in the first matchup. He is a long wing who can shoot, attack the basket and pass when needed.

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. Kaleb Joseph and Trevor Cooney also have to do a better job at preventing the Duke guards from getting into the lane.

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 has struggled lately while battling a sore back. Against Notre Dame, however, he busted out of that slump with some clutch shots late in the second half. His ability to continue that play is critical to the offense.

With Gibnije hitting his outside shot and Cooney getting back to his early season consistency, it opens up the floor for Syracuse and makes them very difficult to defend. Mix in B.J. Johnson off the bench, who has played well in the last three games, and Syracuse suddenly looks like an imposing offensive team.

The key is, however, for all of those things to click at once. That has not happened much this season, but may need to in this one.

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. Especially if outside shots are falling, Christmas will be given one-on-one opportunities. If not, he could face double teams especially from Kaleb Joseph’s defender.

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.

Final Thoughts

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. But Syracuse has been playing well lately and is viewing the final games of the season as their chance to make a statement. They will give maximum effort, as always, but playing in Cameron may be too much. Duke’s offensive firepower is as good as it gets in attacking the zone. Whatever the over/under of the number of times the television broadcast shows Jim Boeheim's ejection and jacket removal from last season, take the over.

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