North Carolina Tar Heels vs. Syracuse Orange Preview

Head Coach Jim Boeheim returns from suspension as Orange welcome #6/7 North Carolina Tar Heels to the Dome.

GAME 17: North Carolina (14-2 overall, 3-0 ACC) vs. Syracuse (10-6 overall, 0-3 ACC)

ALL-TIME SERIES: North Carolina, 5-4 (Last Meeting 2015 – North Carolina: W, 93-83)

DATE: Saturday, January 9th, 2016

GAME TIME: 8:00 PM EST

LOCATION: Carrier Dome

TV: ESPN: Channels 24 or 300 on Time Warner Cable (depending on regular digital cable lineup or sports package); Channel 570 on Verizon Fios; Channel 206 on Direct TV; Channel 140 on Dish Network.

ORANGE RECAP: This will be the most attended game of the year in the Carrier Dome, albeit one of the most awkward  in school history. 

Reason #1:  Jim Boeheim will be returning from his nine game suspension, based on infractions investigated by the NCAA for over a decade prior.  He was basically placed on “NCAA House Arrest,” for right or for wrong, and was unable to communicate with the program in any fashion for over a month (Read the recent SI article by Jack McCallum, or the ESPN video where Coach Boeheim and Jay Bilas sit down and discuss what he has been up to.  Both very insightful.).

Reason #2:  Mike Hopkins did a very serviceable job as the interim head coach during Boeheim’s absence; he was both ripped and praised by media pundits and fans for his performance.  The Orange were 4-5 under his watch, and now he will return to the bench as assistant coach and “head coach-designate” (when Boeheim retires) doing his normal duties while the players adapt to the original, but new voice. 

Reason #3:  What a game for Boeheim to return back for!  Arguably the most difficult contest and conference game on their schedule this season.  Yes, Duke fans, the Tar Heels are probably better this year!  However, with Syracuse University students still on winter break, what is the likelihood that the 30,000 plus capacity will be filled by commuter students or those willing to travel back a weekend early before classes begin?

So many factors, so many subplots.  The most important thing is the game itself, which really hasn’t been touched upon yet.  The Orange are coming off one of their worst starts in school history either as a Big East or ACC participant in league play, with a record of 0-3.  To add insult to injury, the heartbreaking loss on Tuesday to Clemson in overtime 74-73, proved once again that the ‘Cuse struggle to hang in games down the stretch in either regulation or extra frames.  Michael Gbinije (22) and Malachi Richardson (21) each gave Syracuse a twenty plus scorer, but in “winning time” finding a clutch performer appears to be fruitless task for this team.  There are a lot of really good people and talented players in the locker room, but this year’s version of the Orange may not have the go-to-guy or closer that they need.  There are still winnable games on the schedule, but until certain players step up or they are able to put a complete game together, a long season of woes is on the horizon.  One thing that SU historically does is play to the level of the opponent.  With the highly ranked Tar Heels coming to town, expect Otto’s Army of players to give a superb effort for the return of Coach Boeheim and to honor the hard work of their substitute teacher, Mike Hopkins.

NORTH CAROLINA: The North Carolina Tar Heels are legit.  Let’s face the facts.  Any stumbling they had early with losses to both at Northern Iowa and Texas has been put behind them and they are back to national recognition.  The Heels are ranked #6 and #7 in the AP and USA Today/Coaches Polls, respectively.  They have already disposed of the #3 Maryland Terrapins (a former ACC foe) in the Big 10/ACC Challenge (89-81) and defeated then #22 ranked UCLA (89-76) in the CBS Sports Classic in Brooklyn, N.Y. on December 19th.  So, there are certainly some marquee victories for North Carolina on the resume, and Hall of Famer Roy Williams will definitely have his team playing at high level come Saturday on ESPN.  If they were to defeat Syracuse, it would be the best start in the ACC during his 13 seasons at the helm of the program.  Most notable heading into this game is the recent play of senior Brice Johnson (F, #11) in a win versus a pesky Florida State team, 106-90.  Johnson played like a man possessed totaling 39 points on 14-16 shooting and 23 rebounds (16 Def., 7 Off.); to go along with three blocked shots.  No to overstate too much, but this would be the modern day version of a “Bill Russell like” performance in the sense that he impacted so many aspects of the game.  Johnson does not equal Russell, by any stretch, but for Syracuse it could be the lighter version they will be dealing with.  An often under achieving Marcus Paige (G, #5), who had 30 of his own against the Seminoles, is finally playing up to his capabilities: 16.3 ppg., 44.4% on three-pointers, and just under four assists per game.  Big man Kennedy Meeks (F, #3) is coming back as well after missing five games with a bruised knee, and he was averaging over 12 points and seven rebounds before the injury.  Combine that with help from Isaiah Hicks (F, #4) and Nate Britt (G, #0) off the bench, each creeping near the 10 ppg. threshold, and North Carolina looks to be one of the favorites to win the ACC in 2015-16.  They sit at the top spot in the conference both in league and non-league play.  The cards seem stacked against the Orange, but once the ball is jumped at a seemingly raucous Carrier Dome, anything can happen.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:

The obvious return of Head Coach Jim Boeheim.  How will the team and the Dome respond to his return?  Will Syracuse get back to their winning ways simply by having the Dean of the Basketball Department patrolling the side lines?  Or is this just one of those seasons where SU is NIT bound at best, and Orange Nation will have to live through so many heartaches?

*Currently ESPN’s bracketologist, Joe Lundardi has Syracuse completely out of the field of 68 and nowhere near the bubble from a conference (ACC) projected to get eight teams in the tournament.

The continued issue of rebounding and lobs over the zone.  The eye test would display that Johnson, Hicks and Meeks will have a field day rebounding over the Orange.  Despite the athleticism of Tyler Roberson and Lydon, and the girth of DaJuan Coleman it just doesn’t seem like Syracuse has enough depth underneath to bang with the big boys.  Games against Texas Southern and Clemson also proved that you could have an alley-oop contest against the ‘Cuse zone, because they play centerfield on the back line and rarely guard the high post or lob.  If North Carolina can hit some early threes, which have been the recent recipe of opponents, then a dunk fest will ensue after halftime.

Conditioning and bench play.  As by design from Coach Boeheim, Syracuse has rarely gone more than six or seven players deep in the last 20 plus years.  But, with Frank Howard out with an undisclosed illness and Kaleb Joseph barely making a sound with his sneaker before the yo-yo reels him back to his seat, other than Tyler Lydon there is no one of impact down the line.  Chinonso Obokoh could get some minutes in case of foul trouble, but Gbinije, Richardson, Trevor Cooney, Roberson and Lydon will all be forced to play nearly 35 minutes or more.  The Tar Heels balance their minutes well with an 11 man rotation, in which substantial players get no more than 27 minutes (Johnson, 26.3) and no less than 10 minutes (Joel James, 10.9).  North Carolina seems to spread it around like the San Antonio Spurs, while the Orange is forced to play the limited few they have like the Brooklyn Nets.  Similar comparisons at this point in the season.


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