Pregame: Orange vs. Irish

After losing two consecutive road games, the Syracuse Orange (15-6/4-3) find themselves smack-dab in the middle of the Big East conference with a 4-3 record. Only one of their wins came against a team with a winning league record, and the 3 non-conference losses will not favorably impress the NCAA selection committee. As such, the Orange MUST win tonight against a 17-4/5-3 Notre Dame team.

Notre Dame Season to Date: The Fighting Irish are off to a strong start, posting a 17-4 record in a season that was supposed to be reserved for "rebuilding". The Irish tripped up early in the season, losing to a strong Butler team, but rebounded nicely with impressive wins over Maryland and Alabama. Since the beginning of conference play they have beaten Louisville and West Virginia, and split with Villanova. Two of their three league losses have come in blow-out fashion: they gave up over 100 points at ‘Nova, and they scored only 48 in an 18-point loss to Georgetown. In fact, Notre Dame has lost ALL 3 of their Big East road games, which bodes well for the Orange.

Notre Dame Personnel: SR Russell Carter is the Big East's most improved player. The 6-4 SR has gone from little-used defensive specialist, to the team's leading scorer. He has always had the athleticism to star in the league, but is just now figuring out how to use it. Carter is a multi-dimensional threat; he can get to the line by slashing to the basket and he has also hit 60 triples this year. He is also a decent rebounder and is third on the team in assists.

The Irish are one of the most offensively proficient teams in the league and have 4 players who average double digits in the scoring column. This number would actually be five if Kyle McAlarney hadn't been dismissed from school. McAlarney was having a strong season, scoring in double figures and posting an assist to turnover ratio of nearly 3 to 1.

With McAlarney no longer running the show, the Irish have turned to Tory Jackson, a 5-10 FR PG. Jackson is a decent assist man, but he doesn't offer much in the way of scoring, and he can be forced into turnovers at times.

JR F Rob Kurz and SR G Colin Falls are the other mainstays in the starting lineup. Both players average more than 13 points per contest, despite scoring in different ways. Falls has taken all but 32 of his shots from beyond the arc, while Kurz has a well-developed mid-range game. Kurz can step out and shoot it from deep as well, but only about 1/5 of his shots come from long range.

Freshman forward Luke Harangody (6-8, 250 lbs) is the 4th member of the team that averages more than 10 ppg. He has seen most of his action off the bench, but was a spot starter when Falls was injured previously. Harangody is the rare Notre Dame player who does not spot up beyond the arc, but he is very offensive-minded and does a lot of damage considering he plays less than half a game on average.

Other noteworthy Irish are Zach Hillesland (6-9 SO), and Luke Zeller (6-11 SO). Zeller is usually the 5th starter and Hillesland provides depth off the bench. Zeller is also deadly from the perimeter, where he has connected on nearly 50% of his three-ball attempts.

Game Breakdown On paper, this Notre Dame team looks like the worst enemy any zone could face. The Irish shoot almost 25 threes a game and knock down a very higher percentage (39%). They have 6 different players who have taken more than 25 three pointers on the year, so they have multiple threats beyond the arc.

To make matters worse, the Irish are a strong rebounding team (+7 on the boards) and they pull in almost 13 offensive boards per game. They also take care of the ball well (+3 turnover margin) and shoot free throws at a 75% clip. In many ways, this team is like an "anti-Syracuse" squad.

However, the games aren't played on paper, so the zone may be effective in spurts considering that Notre Dame relies on a freshman point guard. Edgar Sosa notwithstanding, the SU zone typically makes mince-meat out of inexperienced guards, so in many respects, ND's success tonight will be on the shoulders of Tory Jackson. If he struggles to get his teammates into offensive sets, it may be a tough night for Notre Dame.

On the other hand, given Notre Dame's excellence from long range and their ability to crash the offensive glass, coach Boeheim must be willing to switch up the defenses when his zone starts to get shredded. If Boeheim relies on a "waiting for the opposition to mess up" strategy, the Orange will struggle. Notre Dame does not make a lot of unforced errors and they are not likely to go 8-32 from three-point range like Louisville did on Saturday.

If ever there was a Big East game that begged for some man-to-man defense from SU, this is it. Outside of Russell, the Irish don't match-up particularly well with Syracuse from an athletic standpoint.

Once again, the game will likely come down to whether or not Syracuse can take care of the ball and rebound missed shots. The Orange ballhandling has been terrible in Big East play with 15 or more turnovers in each of the last 6 games (18 to/game). During that stretch, they've force only 13 per game, and that number is skewed by the 23 miscues that Marquette committed. In the last five games, the SU turnover margin is an embarrassing -6.6.

The rebounding has been just as bad. A cursory glance at the numbers won't tell you much - you'll see that SU is posting a +2 margin on the glass. But, if you delve in deeper, you'll see that the Orange have forced 850 missed shots on the season, yet they have given up a staggering 333 offensive rebounds! When the opposition reclaims 3 of out of every 8 of their misses, they are going to get a ton of extra shots, and even poor shooting teams will be able to compete by way of pure "volume" of shots taken.

The turnovers disparity and rebounding inefficiency on the defensive end have allowed the opposition to take a whopping 198 more shots during the course of the season. This is a staggering number that points to imminent disaster as the schedule gets tougher. If Boeheim is going to continue to rely on a slow down offense and zone defense, his team will need to improve in both of these categories. There is no better time to start to turn this around tonight! Let's Go Orange!

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