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

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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.

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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
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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

Duke leapfrogs Kansas for No. 1 in latest AP Top 25 poll

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NEW YORK (AP) — Duke has supplanted Kansas atop the new AP Top 25 poll after its dominating win against Kentucky, giving the Blue Devils a record number of appearances at No. 1.

The Blue Devils jumped from fourth to first in Monday’s first regular-season poll. That allowed Duke to set a record with its 135th week at No. 1, breaking a tie with UCLA for most all-time.

Duke claimed 48 of 65 first-place votes after beating then-No. 2 Kentucky by 34 points in their opener.

It was impressive enough to bump the preseason No. 1 Jayhawks, who fell to No. 2 despite a quality win of their own against then-No. 10 Michigan State.

Here is the full AP Poll:

1. Duke (48 first-place votes)
2. Kansas (14)
3. Gonzaga
4. Virginia (2)
5. Tennessee (1)
6. Nevada
7. North Carolina
8. Villanova
9. Auburn
10. Kentucky
11. Michigan State
12. Kansas State
13. Oregon
14. Florida State
15. Syracuse
16. Virginia Tech
17. Mississippi State
18. Michigan
19. Clemson
20. UCLA
21. TCU
22. LSU
23. Purdue
24. Marquette
25. Buffalo

Monday Overreactions: Auburn’s awesome, Duke’s better and Weekly Awards

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: C.J. Massinburg, Buffalo

I’m sure that, at some point this season, we are going to see an individual performance better than the one that C.J. Massinburg posted late on Friday night in Morgantown, W.V., but it’s not going to be easy to do. In a 99-94 overtime win over then-No. 13 West Virginia, Massinburg put up a career-high 43 points to go along with 14 boards and three assists all while shooting 9-for-15 from three.

But the box score itself doesn’t really do his performance justice. He had nine points in an 11-3 run in the final three minutes of regulation that capped off a flurry late in the second half as Buffalo erased a double-digit lead. He hit a three with 14 seconds left that forced the extra frame. He scored nine of Buffalo’s 15 points in overtime.

It was incredible, and it came on the road against a tournament team that plays one of the most aggressive brands of basketball in the country. This is the kind of win that will help get Buffalo on the right side of the bubble should disaster strike during their conference tournament.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Duke Blue Devils

The irony is almost too much to bear.

After repeatedly getting burned by overhyping the one-and-done bluebloods and overstating the impact that one recruiting class, regardless of how good it is, can have on a basketball, the one time that the discussions surrounding a loaded freshman class is somewhat muted, that class ends up looking like it will be as dominant as any that we have ever seen.

Duke brought in three of the nation’s top five freshmen and may have the top three picks in the 2019 NBA Draft on their roster, and it sure did look like it in Tuesday’s season-opener, as the Blue Devils absolutely man-handled Kentucky, beating the then-No. 2 Blue Devils, 118-84.

The win was so dominating and so overwhelming that Duke is going to unseat Kansas from the No. 1 spot in the polls despite the fact that Kentucky is 1-0 with a win over a top 15 team. That’s impressive.

C.J. Massinburg (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

MONDAY’S OVERREACTIONS

DUKE IS GOING TO GO UNDEFEATED

How do you stop Duke’s Big Three?

That is the question that is going to force opposing coaching staffs to lose sleep for the next five months, and I’m not sure there actually is an answer. If we’ve learned anything from the first two games that Duke has played, it is that it is going to take a herculean effort to slow down either R.J. Barrett (28.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.0 apg) or Zion Williamson (27.5 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 3.5 bpg, 3.0 apg). Given their size and their athleticism, there are few teams at the college level that will have one — let alone — two elite wing defenders to put on them.

And then there is Cam Reddish (23.5 ppg, 3.0 apg, 10-for-21 from three). He’s another big, athletic wing and a potential top three pick in the 2019 draft, and he’ll be checked night-in and night-out by what can only be described as the worst wing defender opposing teams have on the floor.

Let me put this another way: Duke has three players on their roster that college teams are not going to be able to defend. That’s a good problem for Coach K to have.

Normally these overreactions are meant to be somewhere between semi-serious, moderately-outlandish and a good old fashioned hot-take, but I’m not kidding in the least when I ask this question: Can Duke be beaten?

AUBURN IS THE BEST TEAM IN THE SEC

Entering the season, I thought that Kentucky would be the best team in the SEC this season as most did. I also thought that Tennessee, given what they brought back from the reigning SEC title team, would end up being the second-best team in the league. I thought Auburn would end up being third, partially by default but mostly because I didn’t think that their success last season would be as replicable as Tennessee’s.

It is still early, but boy, does that look like a dumb take.

Auburn smoked South Alabama in their opener before putting a 22-point win on Washington in their second game of the season. Jared Harper looks terrific, Bryce Brown’s shooting shoulder seems to be healthy and the addition of Samir Doughty is already paying dividends.

Chuma Okeke (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

But the real difference in this group is the return of Anfernee McLemore and the emergence of Chuma Okeke. That’s Auburn’s starting frontcourt. Both are athletic, 6-foot-8 forwards with legitimate three-point range. Okeke has five blocks through two games. McLemore led the nation in block percentage last season, and looking back, it’s not hard to figure out that the reason Auburn trailed off towards the end of last season was the loss of McLemore.

Auburn’s system works when they have a switchable, floor-spacing, rim-protecting big.

And Bruce Pearl now has two.

Can we please get Duke-Auburn in the Maui Invitational?

PRESS VIRGINIA WILL NEVER BE THE SAME WITHOUT JEVON CARTER

We talk about unicorns in college basketball all the time, and while there is nothing about Carter’s physical tools that make him unique in college basketball, there is no questioning just how good he was as a defensive presence last year. He could single-handily take a player out of a game, and on Friday night, West Virginia desperately needed someone to do that to C.J. Massinburg.

They didn’t have that player.

And while Beetle Bolden, Brandon Knapper, Chase Harler and Jordan McCabe are all fine players that will win games for the Mountaineers, the fact that they cannot put anyone on Jevon Island this season is going to hurt.

Ashton Hagans (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

KENTUCKY HAS THREE FIVE-STAR POINT GUARDS AND A MAJOR POINT GUARD PROBLEM

There are all kinds of issues currently plaguing this Kentucky program, but I don’t think any of them are as big as the point guard conundrum that John Calipari is currently facing. There are three point guards on their roster that were five-star prospects in high school, and none of them are good enough to take over that point guard role.

Ashton Hagans is a complete mess at this point. It’s still early in the year and Hagans is a guy that reclassified to enroll early, so it’s being too harsh on him probably isn’t fair, but suffice to say that he cannot play major minutes in close games at this point. Immanuel Quickly is probably the best scorer of their trio of ball-handlers, but he has just one assist in 50 minutes thus far this season and did not make a shot from the field against Duke. Quade Green is the guy with the experience, but truth-be-told, he’s better playing off the ball as a secondary ball-handler due to some of his physical limitations.

Rationing minutes between Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson is going to become an issue — especially if Herro keeps making it clear Johnson should be on the floor — as will P.J. Washington’s disastrous start to the season — is Kentucky’s best front-line really Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery?

But none of those things will matter if Calipari doesn’t fix what’s ailing his point guards.

THE ATLANTIC 10 AND AMERICAN WILL END UP ONE-BID LEAGUES

The start to this season as been absolutely disastrous for the Atlantic 10.

George Mason got first-place votes in the A-10 preseason poll. They’re 0-2 with home losses to American and Penn. George Washington is 0-3 with home losses to Stony Brook (after leading 22-0) and Siena. Michigan is next.  La Salle started 0-2 with a loss at home to Lafayette. Richmond lost at home to Longwood, St. Bonaventure lost at home to Bucknell and Fordham lost at home to Houston Baptist.

Things haven’t been much better in the American. League-favorite UCF lost at home to Florida Atlantic. SMU lost at home to Southern Miss. Wichita State did look impressive in a neutral site game against Providence, but they had to win that after losing their opener at home to Louisiana Tech. Cincinnati got dropped by Ohio State at home. East Carolina lost to James Madison. Tulane took a home loss as well, but at least that came to No. 17 Florida State, who absolutely pounded Florida in their opener.

Non-league performance is critical for conferences like this. The dreck at the bottom of the leagues already hurts the computer numbers for everyone in the conference, and taking this many ugly losses early in the year only gives those computer numbers a lower floor.

I’m not sure anyone will be that shocked if the Atlantic 10 ends up only sending their automatic bid winner to the NCAA tournament.

But it will be quite the wake-up call for the AAC if they do the same.

NBC Sports Top 25: Duke is No. 1, Kentucky to 18

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With all the hand-wringing and excitement about the return of college basketball this week, you might be surprised to learn that just three teams ranked in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 lost.

Two of those losses came in the Champions Classic, as Kentucky and Michigan State fell to the top two teams in this week’s NBC Sports Top 25, Duke and Kansas, respectively. The third? Then-No. 17 West Virginia losing at home to now-No. 25 Buffalo on Friday night.

I say all that to say this: There really isn’t all that much to change about the Top 25 this week. There are really only three questions that need to be answered, so I’ll walk you through my thought process for each one:

  1. Can Kansas fall out of the top spot with a win over a top 15 team?: Hell yes they can. The Jayhawks were the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason based on projections and feelings we had about how good they might end up being. Now we have actual, actionable results to evaluate, and there really should be all that much of a discussion. I’m not even sure there are Kansas fans will sit here and say that, after watching Duke beat Kentucky by 34 points, they believe the Jayhawks are better than the Blue Devils.
  2. How far should Kentucky fall?: I dropped the Wildcats to 18th. I’ve seen other top 25s that have Kentucky at the back-end of the top ten. I don’t think that’s crazy, but I also think that we have much more to worry about with this Wildcat team that those folks realize. Kentucky still has top ten potential, but for my money they are much further from reaching their ceiling than anyone realized. I ended up with them 18th because I couldn’t justify dropping them below LSU or Mississippi State.
  3. What do we do with West Virginia and Buffalo?: I was already lower on West Virginia entering the season than the public, so dropping them out of the top 25 with a loss at home against Buffalo was pretty easy for me to do. I know that loss came as a result of a once-in-a-career blow-up game from C.J. Massinburg and that the Mountaineers didn’t have Beetle Bolden down the stretch as he dealt with cramping issues, but it seemed pretty evident that Press Virginia has some kinks to work out. Buffalo, on the other hand, entered the season as one of the best mid-majors in the country after smoking Arizona in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament. They lived up to that billing, so why not reward them?

Anyway, here is the entire NBC Sports Top 25:

1. Duke (2-0, Last week: 4)
2. Kansas (1-0, 1)
3. Gonzaga (2-0, 3)
4. Villanova (2-0, 5)
5. Nevada (2-0, 6)
6. Tennessee (2-0, 7)
7. Virginia (2-0, 8)
8. North Carolina (2-0, 9)
9. Auburn (2-0, 10)
10. Kansas State (1-0, 11)
11. Virginia Tech (1-0, 12)
12. Florida State (2-0, 14)
13. Michigan State (1-1, 13)
14. TCU (2-0, 15)
15. UCLA (2-0, 16)
16. Oregon (2-0, 18)
17. Syracuse (2-0, 19)
18. Kentucky (1-1, 2)
19. LSU (2-0, 20)
20. Mississippi State (2-0, 21)
21. Clemson (2-0, 22)
22. Michigan (2-0, 23)
23. N.C. State (2-0, 24)
24. Marquette (2-0, 25)
25. Buffalo (2-0, NA)

New Additions: 25. Buffalo
Dropped Out: 17. West Virginia

Washington evacuates team bus after it catches fire following loss to Auburn

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Washington’s bad road trip to Alabama got worse on Friday night when the team had to evacuate their bus.

Following an 88-66 road loss at Auburn earlier in the night, the Huskies boarded the team bus to take a charter flight home to Seattle. That’s when the team bus blew a tire about 15 miles outside of the airport in Montgomery.

The bus caught fire and the team had to evacuate. A Washington spokesperson told Percy Allen of the Seattle Times that no one was injured. Senior big man Noah Dickerson documented the experience on Twitter. The team had to wait for a second bus to arrive at 1:30 a.m. to get them to the airport to end a long night.

Thankfully, everybody seems to be okay after this incident. Washington doesn’t play again until hosting San Diego on Monday night, as they will hopefully have time to rest after a long night of travel.

Duke lands four-star 2019 guard Boogie Ellis

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Duke picked up a commitment late Friday night as Class of 2019 four-star shooting guard Boogie Ellis pledged to the Blue Devils.

Although the San Diego native is not the typical five-star recruit commonly associated with Duke recruiting over the last several seasons, he is a valuable addition to the Blue Devil Class of 2019 recruiting haul. The 6-foot-2 Ellis became a national recruit this summer heading into fall thanks to his shot-making ability and knack for making clutch plays. Regarded as the No. 41 overall prospect in the Rivals national Class of 2019 national rankings, Ellis should fit in well in Duke’s backcourt next season.

If point guard Tre Jones stays for his sophomore season, then he’ll have a quality complementary shooter in Ellis beside him and five-star wing Wendell Moore could also fit in at the three. Ellis averaged 17.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game in the Nike EYBL playing with the Oakland Soldiers this spring and summer. Perhaps most importantly, Ellis shot 46 percent from three-point range, meaning Duke’s floor-spacing will be greatly benefitted by his arrival.

Duke recruiting hasn’t been as dominant in this class as it has in the past few years. But that could quickly change in the coming weeks as the Blue Devils remain heavily involved with a number of top-ten prospects and five-star recruits.