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Can Syracuse Exploit Miami’s Weaknesses and Manufacture an Upset?

Syracuse’s trainwreck of a men’s basketball season rumbles along the tracks of despair. Up next on the route: a loss to Miami (FL) on Wednesday night in the Carrier Dome.

Ok, maybe it’s unfair to chalk this one up as an L already, but the Orange has done nothing to inspire even a shred of confidence in its meetings with stellar (or even mediocre) opponents this season. The Hurricanes are probably the second-best team SU has faced so far — and Jim Boeheim’s group has already piled up six losses. Miami checks in at No. 30 in KenPom.com’s national rankings, higher than any Syracuse opponent other than Wisconsin (No. 11). Orange Nation has very little cause for optimism heading into the showdown of ACC teams coached by old dudes named Jim.

With that being said, a win on Wednesday could provide the spark SU needs to turn its season around, so it’s a worthwhile exercise to identify weaknesses that the ‘Cuse could exploit on its way to an upset victory.

Unfortunately, the Hurricanes’ scouting report doesn’t feature many holes. They’re one of 25 teams to rank top-50 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and aside from a two-game stumble against Iowa State (No. 28) and Florida (No. 13) in late November, Miami has taken care of business this season.

The Canes are, however, somewhat careless with the ball — they turn it over on 19.7 percent of their offensive possessions, the 216th-best rate in the nation. Miami’s foes rip the rock away on 9.6 percent of the Hurricanes’ possessions, which places them in the bottom 100 nationally in terms of opponent steal rate.

That’s music to the ears of Syracuse fans, whose team is notorious for harassing opposing ball-handlers and racking up steals in bunches. Last season, the Orange’s steal rate of 12.4 percent ranked fourth in the nation, but that came with two master pickpockets, Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney, manning the top of Boeheim’s 2-3 zone. Both of those defensive savants have since graduated, making way for a quartet of guards that hasn’t come close to matching their level of thievery — at least, that’s what public perception will tell you. In fact, SU’s steal rate has actually increased this year (to 12.7, 10th in the nation). The current roster’s backcourt, which lacks experience in Boeheim’s scheme — as opposed to last year’s duo, each of whom had logged multiple years of experience heading into the season — has proved leaky at the top of the zone, but the four new guards are certainly capable of producing copious amounts takeaways.

Also working in Syracuse’s favor is Miami’s apparent aversion to long-distance jumpers. Only 29.7 percent of the Hurricanes’ shots come from beyond the arc, giving them the nation’s 307th-highest 3-point rate. The zone invites opponents to chuck from downtown; Miami isn’t built to exploit that dynamic.

But the Canes’ 3-point struggles didn’t matter last year, when Miami handled the Orange, 64-51, despite shooting an atrocious 3-of-25 (12 percent!) from beyond the arc. The Hurricanes don’t need to shoot the lights out to beat SU.

The other side of the coin paints a perilous picture for Syracuse. Miami could feast on the offensive glass — the Hurricanes’ offensive rebounding rate of 38 percent ranks 14th in the country, while the Orange collects just 32.9 percent of its opponents’ misses (the nation’s 284th-best defensive rebounding rate).

Miami could also build an early lead and then salt the game away, a tactic that head coach Jim Larrañaga (no, that ñ isn’t a typo) employs frequently. The Hurricanes operate at the 285th-fastest pace in the country, per KenPom; in other words, their games move like molasses. While this would, in theory, give SU fewer chances to mount a comeback in the likely (certain?) event that it digs itself a hole, consider the other hand: fewer possessions mean fewer chances for the better team to establish itself as such. A slow pace can act as a key factor in manufacturing upsets — and at this point, a Syracuse win over Miami would qualify as an upset.
If the Orange is going to pull it off, it needs to hound the Hurricanes guards (and hope it leads to steals), build a forcefield around the 3-point arc (and hope Miami settles for triples), and protect the defensive boards (and pray that the Canes don’t attack the glass). Those three ingredients comprise the recipe to topple a strong opponent — and maybe, just maybe, engineer a season revival.

The Fizz is owned, edited and operated by Damon Amendolara. D.A. is an ’01 Syracuse graduate from the Newhouse School with a degree in Broadcast Journalism.

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