1) Play active defense.
Well, defense was obviously the biggest factor in the loss, particularly in the second half when the Orange simply could not keep the Irish from scoring. Syracuse did come out and play rather effectively in the zone for the first 2/3rds of the first half, but ND started to hit shots over the last 7 minutes before halftime, completely negating a 10 point deficit in no time at all. Syracuse's intensity in the zone started to fall off and Notre Dame also stopped making sloppy passes. Once Troy Jackson got his dribble penetration moves under control, the entire Irish offense opened up.
Defensively, the second half was a complete embarrassment. SU gave up 19 points in the first 10 possessions of the second half. They also started getting beat in transition, which wasn't much of a problem before the break. Colin Falls finished the game with 7 three pointers, largely because the SU perimeter defenders did a poor job of locating him. Rautins and Devendorf, who have been much better defensively in recent games, were virtually non-existent last night.
On the plus side, you have to give major kudos to Terrence Roberts. In his final game in the Garden, Roberts was heroic on the glass, hauling in 20 rebounds. Harris pulled in 15 himself in only 22 minutes, but made several miscues in the zone by coming up too high and leaving a ND shooter open in the corner.
Another thing I'd like to point out is Devendorf's defensive play. One thing that bothers me is that he is SO quick to give up on a play. If an opponent gets by him or around him, he often takes himself out of the play by simply standing and watching. He could learn a lot by watching videos of GMac to see how Gerry would often get steals or poke away passes from behind on second effort type of plays.
2) Take care of the ball.
Syracuse had 14 turnovers in the game, which isn't an overly huge amount. The bigger issue was the timing of the turnovers. Many of them came when the Orange got sloppy with the ball after building a 10 point lead. Notre Dame was able to pull within 2 points at the break by taking advantage of nearly every SU miscue. Paul Harris's turnover on an offensive foul midway through the first half turned out to be a huge momentum swing play.
As I mentioned in the pregame – ND plays good positional defense and good helpside. This was fully evident in yesterday's game, when they got several deflections and tipped passes using their collectively quick hands. Early in the game, SU was much sharper, with their frontcourt players doing a great job of setting each other up for scoring opportunities, but once ND adjusted, that part of the offense dried up.
Although Darryl Watkins' 3 traveling violations in the game's first 4 minutes did not contribute to SU losing a lead, they are noteworthy in terms of the "novelty factor" involved. That's just tough to do…
3) Spring Nichols loose.
Nichols managed only 1 point in the first half, so this point was obviously a failure too. He did finish with 17 points and hit 3 triples in the second half as SU made a move to get within 2 possessions late in the game, but overall he really struggled to get good looks. Russell Carter did a great job on him and the SU guards had a lot of difficultly delivering the ball to him on the few occasions that he did get loose.
4) Match the Irish physicality.
I thought this was one area where SU did a decent job. The Orange outrebounded the Irish 52-47 and recorded 5 blocked shots. Other than making Luke Harangody (20 pts, 11 rebs) look like the second coming of Moses Malone, Syracuse held their own on the interior. Roberts and Harris were obviously demons on the glass, which was nice to see. Nichols, however, grabbed only 3 boards. It seems like SU usually struggles when he doesn't get at least 5 boards.
5) Isolate Harris.
In the pregame article, I mentioned that Carter would have his hands full with Nichols, so Harris should be a matchup nightmare for the Irish. Harris wound up scoring 24 points in the best offensive performance of his career. However, his success should be taken with a grain of salt, as he did virtually all of his damage against Notre Dame's man to man defense.
When the Irish switched to a zone late in the first half and for large portions of the second half, Harris was mostly inefficacious. The Notre Dame zone was a big reason why Harris played only 22 minutes on the afternoon. Also, as I mentioned above, his offensive foul in the middle of the first half proved very costly.
In general, Syracuse had extreme difficulty getting good looks against the zone. It always seems baffling to me that SU should struggle against its own base defense, but in truth different teams play the zone in different manners. Also, springing a new defensive look is often a great way to keep a team off balance, regardless of how talented they are offensively.
The other major factor in the loss that wasn't covered in any of the pregame analysis was free throw shooting. For the second game in a row, Syracuse shot poorly at the stripe, making only 16 of 29 attempts. The Irish countered with nearly 85% shooting from the line, making 22 of 26. The free throw shooting disparity was a significant contributor in both of SU's late season losses, and will need to be improved upon if SU hopes to make a run in the NCAAs.
Despite the loss, it appears to me that Syracuse is really heading in the right direction going into the NCAAs tournament. SU will likely have a tough road to follow as they will garner somewhere between a 10 and 12 seed, but the team's overall level of play has improved dramatically from late January.
With Nichols in the lineup, you have a player who can get hot and score 30 points on any given night. Roberts and Watkins have experience and great physical tools up front, and Roberts is coming off his two best games in over a month. The three players form a backline defense that can, at times, be formidable.
Add to this mixture the savvy offensive skills of Eric Devendorf, the reckless energy infusion of Paul Harris, and the shooting potential of Andy Rautins, and this team is dangerous enough to be able to play with anyone.
The real questions marks will be depth and consistency. If Rautins is off, like he has been in NYC, it limits SU's ability to spread the floor and isolate mismatches. If any of the frontcourt players get in foul trouble, the lack of depth can be a killer. Even so, keep in mind that SU will be entering the NCAAs as a double digit seed playing more like a 4 or 5 seed. The seven wins in the last ten games should give hope to SU fans everywhere