Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

No. 19 Syracuse Orange: Can Boeheim better 2018’s Sweet 16 run?

1 Comment

Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 19 Syracuse.


For the second time in just three seasons, Syracuse and head coach Jim Boeheim did their best to make me look like an idiot in March.

In 2016, after the Orange were bounced out in the first round of the ACC tournament, finishing with a 19-13 record and a 9-9 mark in the ACC, I said that they had absolutely no business getting an at-large bid to the Big Dance before they, as a No. 10 seed, decided to march all the way to the Final Four. This past season, I, again, railed against the Orange’s inclusion in the NCAA tournament field after they entered Selection Sunday with a 20-13 record and an 8-10 finish in the ACC.

What did Syracuse do?

They beat Arizona State in a play-in game before knocking off both TCU and Michigan State en route to the Sweet 16, where Duke was finally able to send Syracuse packing.

You see, despite entering the tournament with a rotation that included just seven scholarship players, Boeheim was able to field a roster that finished with the nation’s fifth-best defense, according to KenPom.com, and was anchored by Tyus Battle, one of the most productive guards in the sport despite the fact that he essentially played every minute for the Orange over the course of the final three months of the season. He finished last season averaging 19.2 points despite playing on one of the slowest teams in college basketball.

And this is the best part: Syracuse returns everyone of consequence from that team while adding a pair of freshmen that will play roles as well as a transfer that could end up pushing for a starting spot.

It’s why Syracuse may not be the most entertaining team to watch this season, but they are a sneaky bet to win the ACC.

MOREPreseason Top 25 | NBC Sports All-Americans | Preview Schedule

MOREMid-Major Power Rankings | The Hot Seat | Perry Ellis All-Stars

SYRACUSE WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

The Orange will, once again, be one of the single-best teams in the country on the defensive end of the floor.

And, as Jim Boeheim has for what feels like half-a-century, they’ll do so by playing the nation’s preeminent 2-3 zone.

I know what you’re thinking: How can it be so difficult for coaches to game-plan against their zone? Why is it so hard for good basketball coaches and good basketball teasm to run good offense against a defense that is generally reserved for old guys trying to keep the dream alive in a men’s league?

It’s because the zone that Syracuse plays is different than your average 2-3 zone. It starts with the ridiculous amount of length that Boeheim has on his roster. Both of his starting guards are 6-foot-6, long and athletic. The wings are 6-foot-9, long and athletic. His starting center is 7-foot-2, and his back-up center is 6-foot-10. Both of them are, you guessed it, long and athletic.

What all that length does is take away passing lanes, especially when you factor in that Boeheim’s zone starts as something closer to a 2-2-1 than a 2-3. The wings push up high, the guards at the top of the zone cut-off a pass to the high-post as the center at the rim defends against a lob over the top of the defense. Opposing offenses can swing the ball around the perimeter or throw looping passes to the corners, which gives Syracuse defenders ample time to move where they need to be, but that’s about it.

The entire purpose of Boeheim’s recruiting strategy — stockpiling as much height, length and athleticism as humanly possible — is to make moving the ball quickly or getting a clean look from the perimeter against his zone impossible.

With this roster, he has done just that.

Syracuse finished last season ranked as the fifth-best defense in the country, according to KenPom’s adjusted-defensive efficiency metric. That is the highest that any Syracuse team has finished in the 17 seasons in KenPom’s database. They were 10th nationally in defensive effective field goal percentage, and while they struggled on the defensive glass, anyone that grabbed an offensive board still has to contend with finishing in the paint around all that length. Should I mention the Orange finished the year third in defensive block rate?

But that’s not the most impressive thing Syracuse did defensively.

This is: The Orange held opponent’s to just 31.8 percent shooting from three (good for 17th nationally) while forcing their opponents to shoot 44.5 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc. That is the highest percentage of any team in the seven high-major leagues. For comparison’s sake, Virginia held opponent’s to 31.0 percent shooting from three, with 40.8 percent of their field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc.

That, frankly, is incredible. It tells you everything you need to know about the Syracuse.

And not only does Boeheim return all five starters and his sixth-man from that team, three of those six returnees — Oshae Brissett, Marek Dolezaj and Bourama Sidibe — were freshmen a season ago, and another 6-foot-6 guard — East Carolina transfer Elijah Hughes, who sat out last season — is eligible to play this season. Throw in a pair of freshmen — Jalen Carey and Buddy Boeheim — that are expected to see immediate playing time, and the Orange will actually be able to give some of their starters a rest this season.

Syracuse is going to be one of the nation’s elite defenses once again, and that is enough to make them a top 25 team entering the season.

RELATED: Expert Picks | CBT Podcast | Best non-conference games
(Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

BUT SYRACUSE IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

I’m not convinced that their offensive improvement is going to be all that drastic.

Let’s call a spade, a spade: Syracuse was downright bad offensively a season ago. They finished the year 135th in KenPom’s adjusted-offensive efficiency metric, which is easily the lowest Syracuse finish in KenPom’s database. The reason the Orange were so poor on that end is three-fold:

  1. They were horrid shooting the ball from the perimeter, making just 31.8 percent of their threes. That was good for 324th nationally. Their floor-spacing was non-existent, which is what happens when you have two players on the floor that are ineffective more than five feet from the rim.
  2. Syracuse didn’t exactly have a point guard on the floor. Franklin Howard led the team in assists, but he was quite turnover prone and, for the second straight season, padded those raw stats against some middling early-season competition. Tyus Battle took over lead guard duties, but …
  3. … he was not only an inefficient scorer that struggled to make his teammates better, he was also more or less the only option for Syracuse to be able to create offense against quality competition.

I don’t think there’s any question that Syracuse will be improved on that end this season. I fully expect Brissett and Dolezaj to be more well-rounded weapons offensively, particularly Brissett, who averaged 14.9 points and 8.8 boards as a freshman. As he gets ‘stretchier’, making more than 33.1 percent of his threes, he’ll only become a better weapon.

Carey and Hughes will also help space the floor and take some of the creative responsibility off of Battle’s plate. Both have drawn rave reviews from sources around the program this offseason. Then there is Buddy Boeheim, a 6-foot-5 sharpshooter that could see 15-20 minutes per game. His size will allow him to play on the top of the zone, hiding his defensive issues, and he steps on campus as the best shooter in the program this side of assistant coach Gerry McNamara.

But I’m nowhere near convinced that this ensures Syracuse will be a top 50 offense, and I think that is what it will take for the Orange to be by the end of the season if they want to be a top four team in the ACC and a true Final Four contender.

Last season, Syracuse was the only top seven team in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric that was not ranked between 30th and 50th in adjusted offensive efficiency. Of those six — Virginia, Cincinnati, Michigan, Texas Tech, Tennessee and Clemson — only Clemson was outside the top three seed lines in the NCAA tournament; the Tigers were a No. 5 seed that reached the Sweet 16.

That’s where the Orange need to be offensively to hit their ceiling …

(Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

… but I’m still in wait and see mode.

The biggest reason? I don’t see a difference in their best five this season when compared to last season. Hughes averaged 7.8 points, 2.3 boards and 1.3 assists while shooting 27.3 percent from three for a bad East Carolina team in 2016-17. Is he going to solve the issues Syracuse has offensively? Carey is a four-star prospect that picked the Orange over Seton Hall and ranked 61st in 247 Sports composite rankings. Buddy Boeheim shoots the leather off the ball, but again, we’re not exactly talking about the second-coming of J.J. Redick here. Those two can fill a role. They’re not going to be one-and-done.

More importantly, every time one of those three newcomers steps on the court, Syracuse will be forced to do one of three things: Send Battle to the bench, send Howard to the bench or play with a guard in one of the wing spots.

Howard has his warts as a player, but he still managed to put up 14.4 points, 4.7 assists and 3.5 boards while leading the Orange in steals. He’s not a perfect fit for what Syracuse needs him to be, but he’s also a long way from being a bum. Playing a guard on a wing will hurt the Orange defensively. Will the boost they get from having another real offensive threat on the floor instead of playing Dolezaj alongside a catch-and-dunk center outweigh what they lose defensively?

And all of this ignores the simple fact that Jim Boeheim despises using his bench. His program hasn’t finished in the top 300 of bench minutes since the 2011-12 season, when he used Dion Waiters — who was the No. 4 pick in the 2012 draft — and Michael Carter-Williams — the No. 11 pick in the 2013 draft and the 2014 NBA Rookie of the Year — as substitutes.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

Syracuse is going to be a good basketball team. They should make it back to the NCAA tournament. They are right there with the likes of Clemson, N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Florida State in the discussion for the fourth-best team in the ACC.

The difference-maker, I think, will be Tyus Battle.

The 6-foot-6 junior scored a ton of points last season. He also took a ton of shots and finished with a higher turnover rate than assist rate. It’s why he’s back in school right now instead of trying to earn a roster spot in the NBA. His inefficiency, while explainable, scared teams off.

And I think he’ll make an effort to improve that this year. He’ll look to take better shots. He’ll try to get his teammates more involved. If he wants to be a combo in the NBA, he has to showcase some ability to make teammates better in college.

If he does that, if he’s more efficient while the sophomore class takes a step forward and the newcomers take some of the load off of Battle’s shoulders, this group has a chance.

Their ability to fluster anyone and everyone with that zone gives them a floor of being a tournament team. Their ceiling, if it all comes together, is as a top ten team, but as of today, my money is on this group finishing closer to their floor than their ceiling.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Kabengele leads No. 16 Florida State to 77-64 win at Clemson

Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Leave a comment

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Trent Forrest said Florida State entered the season hoping to make history. The 16th-ranked Seminoles certainly did that at Clemson.

Mfiondu Kabengele had 19 points and 11 rebounds, and Florida State set a program record with its eighth consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference victory in a 77-64 win over the Tigers on Tuesday night.

The Seminoles (21-5, 9-4 ACC) had not won this many consecutive league games since joining the conference before the 1991-92 season. They won 11 straight Metro Conference games in 1977-78.

“It shows how locked in we’ve been,” said Forrest, a junior guard. “Our seniors came into the year wanting to make history and I feel like we’re helping them with that.”

Florida State used its size, strength and speed to keep the run going against the Tigers, holding on after seeing an 18-point edge cut to 59-52 with eight minutes left. That’s as close as Clemson (15-11, 5-8) would get in dropping its third in a row and getting swept by Florida State for the second time in three seasons.

Kabengele led the way on both sides of the ball. He hit 9 of 13 from the field, blocked two shots, and his rebounds were a season high. Then again, Clemson had trouble stopping much of anything Florida State did around the basket. The Seminoles’ starting center in 7-foot-4 Christ Koumadje went 4-of-6 shooting for 10 points with seven rebounds and a pair of blocks.

“Our coaches emphasize us bigs being a major factor in games,” said Kabengele, the 6-10 sophomore. “To have me and Christ to both have good parts to the game helps us get good wins.”

That wasn’t the case early on in ACC play as Florida State started 1-4 with losses at Pitt and Boston College. It got things in gear against Clemson with a 77-68 win on Jan. 22 and has not lost since.

“The streak continues,” Kabengele said with a smile.

Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton is grateful for his team’s successful run. He’s even happier that his players are gelling so well and improving their play every time out. The streak? It won’t help a bit, he said, in his team’s next contest at No. 8 North Carolina on Saturday.

“In reality, it doesn’t mean anything other than people are probably going to play us a little bit harder,” he said.

The Seminoles took control after Clemson closed to 23-21 on Marcquise Reed’s 3-pointer with 6:18 left in the half. Florida then went on a 15-2 surge the rest of the half with Kabengele hitting three buckets and Walker landing a 3-pointer.

When Trent Forrest got his off-balance push shot on a drive to the basket to go right before the buzzer sounded, Florida State went to the locker room ahead 38-23. The lead grew as large as 18.

Forrest finished with 14 points.

Reed had 20 points to lead Clemson, which was coming off two gut-wrenching, one point defeats at Miami (65-64) and at Louisville (56-55) before this. Tigers coach Brad Brownell said his team was deflated when it returned to campus Sunday after the Louisville loss, but thought they had rebounded enough that this game should have been more competitive.

“I thought our energy was good,” Brownell said. “They were just better than us.”

BIG PICTURE

Florida State: The Seminoles’ offense was relentless with guard Trent Forrest and Terance Mann pushing the ball at the basket where their bigger teammates like Kabengele and Koumadje took control. It’s a formula that works well in the postseason where Florida State reached the NCAA’s round of eight last year.

Clemson: The Tigers came into the season ranked and with high expectations after their NCAA Tournament run to the Sweet 16 a year ago. But the team of four senior starters appeared way out of synch in this one. Clemson has had two three-game losing streaks in ACC play and may have to do something remarkable for make another appearance in the Big Dance.

TURNAROUND

Hamilton said his team’s early ACC troubles were in part blending in newcomers along with injuries to mainstays like Phil Cofer, who missed the first win over Clemson last month. Hamilton was confident his team would recover and anyway, “there was a high probability we wouldn’t go undefeated in ACC play,” he said.

OLD SCHOOL

With all the focus on fabulous freshmen, Florida State and Clemson had a throwback game with a combined seven players in the two starting lineups as seniors. The Seminoles’ senior starter were Cofer, Mann and Koumadje. Clemson had four starters in Elijah Thomas, David Skara, Reed and Shelton Mitchell.

UP NEXT

Florida State ends a three-game road swing at North Carolina on Saturday.

Clemson plays Boston College at home Saturday.

___

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

Kentucky’s Reid Travis exits Missouri win with sprained knee

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kentucky earned an SEC road win over Missouri on Tuesday night, but in the process, the Wildcats could be without senior forward Reid Travis for the next several games.

Travis exited Tuesday’s game in the second half with what’s being called a sprained right knee after teammate Keldon Johnson fell into Travis’ leg with a little more than 10 minutes left in the game. The fall sent Travis to the locker room, as he didn’t return to the contest as Kentucky held a comfortable second-half advantage.

Postgame, Kentucky head coach John Calipari told Jerry Tipton that there was no definite prognosis on Travis’ injury as Calipari “threw out the possibility of [Travis] being sidelined two weeks.”

Without Travis in the lineup, Calipari has the luxury of turning to two McDonald’s All-American bigs off the bench in freshman E.J. Montgomery and sophomore Nick Richards. Montgomery has earned consistent minutes of late while Richards was a promising 3-for-3 for seven points in Tuesday’s win.

Travis entered Tuesday averaging 11.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game for the Wildcats as he’s been one of the team’s leaders this season. While Kentucky can likely withstand the loss of Travis for a few weeks, they will need him at full strength if they want to make a potential Final Four run.

No. 4 Kentucky beats Missouri 66-58

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Leave a comment

COLUMBIA, Mo. — PJ Washington and Tyler Herro scored 18 points each as fourth-ranked Kentucky slogged past Missouri 66-58 on Tuesday night.

Ashton Hagans added 12 points for the Wildcats (22-4, 11-2 Southeastern Conference), who looked a little sluggish three days after beating then top-ranked Tennessee. But Kentucky was good enough defensively to hold the Tigers to 37 percent shooting from the field.

Ronnie Suggs scored 13 and Jordan Geist finished with 11 for Missouri (12-13, 3-10 SEC).

After Missouri took an 11-10 advantage with 12:35 left in the first half, Herro scored seven points in a 42-second span to give Kentucky the lead for good. The Tigers got into foul trouble as Kevin Puryear and Jeremiah Tilmon each picked up two quick ones and Mitchell Smith was knocked out of the game after being hit in the head with an inadvertent elbow. Washington racked up 15 first-half points as the Wildcats opened a 41-23 halftime lead.

Kentucky had some attrition up front, also, as starting forward Reid Travis left the game in the second half with a sprained right knee. Missouri did most of its offensive damage late, narrowing its deficit to six points on Torrence Watson’s 3-pointer with 14 seconds left.

BIG PICTURE

Missouri: Derrick Chievous, who starred for the Tigers from 1985-88, had his No. 3 jersey retired at halftime. Chievous, who was known for always wearing a Band-Aid during games for no medical reason, is Missouri’s career leading scorer with 2,580 points. He is the seventh Missouri player to have his jersey retired, joining Bill Stauffer, Norm Stewart, Willie Smith, Steve Stipanovich, Jon Sundvold and Doug Smith.

Kentucky: With his 297th victory in 10 years at Kentucky, John Calipari tied Joe B. Hall for second place in wins at the school. Calipari has some work to do to catch the man at the top of the list — Adolph Rupp won 876 games in 42 years leading the Wildcats.

UP NEXT

Missouri: The Tigers play Saturday at Florida.

Kentucky: The Wildcats play host to Auburn on Saturday.

Tuesday’s Things to Know: Baylor upends Iowa State; Purdue, Maryland score Big Ten road wins

J Pat Carter/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Tuesday night in college hoops had some games to monitor for both the bubble, and the Big Ten, as road teams winning tight games was a bit of a theme. One team looks to have solidified their at-large bid while two more teams made major moves in the Big Ten standings. 

Baylor potentially punches NCAA ticket with road win at Iowa State

The bubble didn’t have many important wins on Tuesday. Most of the bubble lost, or, at best, earned wins over underwhelming competition. That wasn’t the case for Baylor though as the Bears might have earned their way into the Field of 68 with a notable 73-69 road win at No. 19 Iowa State.

Struggling a bit over the last few games, Baylor earned the very important sweep over the Cyclones as they stayed in the tight Big 12 race by continuing to earn unlikely wins. Depleted by injury, the Bears had strong outings from Jared Butler (17 points) and Makai Mason (14 points). But it was the play of former Division III transfer Freddie Gillespie that made the difference for Baylor. Playing 31 minutes, Gillespie was 7-for-8 from the floor as he finished with 14 points, 10 rebound and two blocks — including a key swat in the game’s final minutes.

While Baylor has some work to do if they want to stay in the crowded Big 12 race, they can rest a little bit easier tonight knowing that they are likely safely in the NCAA tournament.

No. 15 Purdue outlasts rival Indiana to tie for Big Ten lead

One of college basketball’s most heated rivalries took center stage on Tuesday night as the Boilermakers needed a late tip-in from big man Matt Haarms to beat Indiana with a 48-46 road win. Tying for the Big Ten lead with Michigan and Michigan State, this is one of Purdue’s most impressive wins of the season, as they stepped up and won on the road despite an awful night from star guard Carsen Edwards.

Shooting only 4-for-24 from the floor, Edwards was bailed out by a stout Purdue defense as well as 11-second half points from senior shooter Ryan Cline. It also didn’t hurt that Indiana freshman Romeo Langford (14 points, nine rebounds) missed the go-ahead free throw with less than 30 seconds left. Not many believed the Boilermakers could win games with Edwards missing 20 shots. But it shows how strong Purdue is defensively and it’s a testament to why they are surprisingly tied for the Big Ten lead at this point in the season.

No. 24 Maryland escapes with Big Ten road win at No. 21 Iowa

The night’s only matchup between top-25 teams was another exciting finish in the Big Ten as the Terrapins got the best of Iowa thanks to a late tip-in from big man Bruno Fernando (11 points). After a back-and-forth game that saw the Hawkeyes take the lead thanks to a late run, Maryland charged back and made critical plays on both ends to get the important road win. Anthony Cowan Jr. paced the Terps with 17 points while Eric Ayala also chipped in 11 points.

This win for Maryland is crucial because they own any potential tiebreaker over Iowa in the Big Ten standings. That could definitely come into play as the Terps, Wisconsin and the Hawkeyes are all in the mix for the No. 4 seed in the Big Ten tournament — the final double-bye.

Fernando’s putback lifts No. 24 Maryland over No. 21 Iowa

Getty Images
Leave a comment

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon knew the ball would be in Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon’s hands.

The No. 24 Terrapins were ready in the final 7.8 seconds, and they turned the No. 21 Hawkeyes away from a third-straight buzzer beater with a 66-65 victory on Tuesday night.

“The kid’s made some incredible shots,” Turgeon said. “I just hoped the luck ran out — well, I wouldn’t say it’s luck, he’s a big-time shooter. I think Anthony (Cowan) got a finger on it on the way up.

“It bounced our way tonight.”

Bruno Fernando scored 11 points for Maryland (20-7, 11-5 Big Ten), the last two of which came on a putback with 7.8 seconds to go that gave the Terrapins their winning margin.

Maryland gave up an 11-point lead over the final four minutes, but held on against an Iowa team that had won its last two games via buzzer-beater and had two looks at the basket in the final seven seconds. The Terrapins got 17 points from Anthony Cowan, who shot 5 of 10 from 3-point range and had eight rebounds. Eric Ayala added 11 points and Fernando had 11 rebounds.

Despite Iowa’s furious comeback effort, which included Bohannon being fouled on a 3-pointer, Turgeon was happy with how his team responded to Iowa’s getting back in the game.

“They shoot five free throws, we’ve had the ball for 20 seconds and there was still 3:57 to go and it’s a two-point game,” Turgeon said. “It was crazy how fast we lost it. But my guys were tough tonight.

“Iowa missed about seven wide-open 3s for us. And we started to make shots. We got ourselves going and got our defense going.”

Iowa (20-6, 9-6) saw its four game-win streak end. The Hawkeyes were led by Bohannon, who had 14 points, and Isaiah Moss, who added 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Hawkeyes head coach Fran McCaffery couldn’t pinpoint a major difference in a reason for this outcome being different than the previous pair, other than the final possession was emblematic of the entire game.

“It was kind of the whole game,” McCaffery said. “Shots by good shooters weren’t going in. There was a lot (of options at the end). I think (Bohannon) felt like he was free enough to pull. He wants to be the guy shooting it in that situation.”

BIG PICTURE

Iowa: The Hawkeyes couldn’t make another miracle, and finally were bit by inconsistent play they were able to overcome previously. Iowa held Maryland without a field goal for nearly six minutes to open the game, but allowed the Terrapins to shoot nearly 52 percent in the second half.

Maryland: The Terrapins had 10 offensive rebounds, including the big one by Fernando. Maryland also forced 17 Iowa turnovers and scored 20 points off those turnovers.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Iowa: The Hawkeyes dipped slightly last week after narrow wins, but a loss to a ranked team shouldn’t be the biggest indictment.

Maryland: A road win against a ranked team should boost the Terrapins next Sunday, provided Turgeon’s team holds serve at home against Ohio State.

UP NEXT

Iowa welcomes Indiana to Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Friday.

Maryland returns home to play Ohio State on Saturday.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25