ACC Basketball

Don’t Sleep on Syracuse

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The Duke Blue Devils return to Syracuse, NY to take on Jim Boeheim’s Orange. This of course was the setting for arguable the best game in ACC last year. The 91-89 Syracuse victory featured a game-tying Rasheed Sulaimon shot, overtime and a controversial Rakeem Christmas block to win the game.

In that contest, Syracuse was flying high, improving to 21-0, 8-0 in their first season in the ACC. However, since that stunning victory, the Orange are just 23-15, falling hard at the end of last year (losing in the first round of the ACC tournament and getting eliminated in the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend).

This year, the Orange have struggled to get quality wins and were a fringe Tournament team at best, until past violations finally nipped them in the butt and the school self-imposed a postseason ban.

How the Blue Devils perceive the Orange will be important. When faced with a good opponent, this young Duke team has time and again risen to the challenge on the road (just ask Wisconsin, Louisville and Virginia). However, when faced with an inferior foe, this team has not always impressed, losing to NC State, struggling to earn wins over Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and most recently, escaping Florida State.

While Syracuse may not have the talent its fans are use to having and it certainly has nothing to play for but pride, they do match up well against Duke and this is a dangerous game for the Blue Devils if they get caught napping.

First, the infamous 2-3 zone. Yes, the Blue Devils can handle it, especially if they let Justise Winslow troll in the middle. However, a zone makes it tough to post, so it reduces the amount of opportunities for Jahlil Okafor. This means they are going to need to be hitting those threes over the longer Syracuse defenders.

Speaking of Okafor, he’s going to need to play some defense. Rakeem Christmas has been Syracuse’s most consistent scorer this year and he has both the length and size to match the Duke freshmen inside. I have to believe Coach K will double up Christmas inside, but with who?

The match up that could decide it all will be Michael Gbiniji vs. Justise Winslow. While there has been plenty of talk about the current Duke small forward breaking out of his slump by attacking the basket with his NBA-ready frame, it’s been the former Duke small forward who has really taken his game to the next level. Over his last four games, Gbiniji has averaged 19.5 points per game, hitting 30-49 from the floor, doing his damage both at the rim and from behind the three-point line.

You have to think he’s going to be amp’d up for this one, facing his old team. In fact, everyone in Orange (fans and players alike) should be amp’d up for this one. With no postseason play, this will be Syracuse’s Super Bowl. No offense to Virginia, who comes here in March, but no team motivates the locals like the Blue Devils.

The key to the game of course will be threes. Yes, Duke needs to shoot over the zone, that’s obvious. However, can Syracuse hit their deep balls? The Blue Devils have been vulnerable giving up threes, particularly to some of the worst three-point shootings teams in the ACC. While I don’t see Duke leaving Gbiniji, open shots will be there for Trevor Cooney, B.J. Johnson and Kaleb Joseph. If they can hit (not always a sure thing), watch out Duke.

However, I’m putting my money on Tyus Jones. This kid is not rattled by anything, which will remind Syracuse fans of Tyler Ennis from last year. In his last two games, Jones has 19 assists to just one turnover. Not even the dome will bother this young man.

WORTHLESS PREDICTIONS: Duke, 79-77

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