After a fairly disappointing run through non-conference play, there are quite a few questions that still need to be answered for Syracuse basketball. There were some highlights in the non-con, most especially Elijah Hughes emerging as a legitimate ACC Player of the Year candidate, but many are hoping that ACC play is where this historically young team kicks it into the next gear.
That all starts on Saturday when the Orange opens the heart of ACC play against Notre Dame. The two teams enter with similar records with the Irish sitting at 9-4 on the season and SU checking in at a pretty paltry 8-5. The ‘Cuse has the upper hand when it comes to conference record at 1-1 while ND enters the matchup at 0-2 in the ACC this year with losses to UNC and Cole Anthony in the season opener and an ugly home loss to a pretty bad Boston College team in early December. Both teams also enter with one win against Power 5 conference opponents (Syracuse over Georgia Tech and UND over UCLA) so, on paper, this is a pretty even matchup.
With all of that being said, what exactly do you need to know about this Irish squad? Here are the top three things that Mike Brey’s club brings to the table.
Coming into the season, a lot of people were surprised that Elijah Hughes didn’t appear on either the first or second preseason All-ACC teams. Notre Dame fans were not dealt the same surprise when the Irish’s star forward, 6-foot-9 senior John Mooney, was named to the first team. The ND big man even went so far as to garner three votes for preseason ACC Player of the Year and he’s showing why with the way he’s playing this season.
The Florida native is currently averaging a double-double of 14.9 points and 13.5 rebounds, both of which are far and away the best numbers on the Irish roster. He’s likely going to run away with the conference’s rebounding title as his 13.5 boards per game lead the conference by four rebounds per over Wake Forest’s Olivier Sarr and Duke’s Vernon Carey. We’ve all seen the issues that SU has had against teams with skilled bigs this season (Mamadi Diakite at Virginia, Mike Watkins at Penn State and Georgetown’s Omer Yurtseven come to mind) so Mooney presents a serious issue for the 2-3 zone.
Taking Care of the Rock
If there’s one surefire way to lose a basketball game, it’s to turn the basketball over. That’s part of what makes the zone such an effective defense for Syracuse because it gives the Orange the ability to clog passing lanes and generate turnovers. Unfortunately for SU, those opportunities may come few and far between against Notre Dame.
Not only do the Irish top the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.90 (Virginia Tech is 2nd at 1.72 with SU in 3rd at 1.42), but ND also ranks second in the conference in both turnovers per game (a measly 9.6) and turnover margin at +3.77 on the season. The 9.6 turnovers per contest also ranks second in the entire country. To put it lightly, the Irish simply do not cough up the rock. That’s going to put a ton of pressure on an already relatively unreliable Syracuse offense to score in the half-court, something interesting to keep an eye on.
Experience, Experience, Experience
While Syracuse is by far one of the most inexperienced teams in the conference (possibly THE youngest), Notre Dame might just be the exact opposite. Of the team’s typical starting five (T.J. Gibbs, Prentiss Hubb, Juwan Durham, Rex Pfleuger and Mooney), three are seniors, one is a grad student (Pfleuger) and one is a sophomore (Hubb). Four of the five, with the exception of Durham, are also returning starters to boot. These are guys that have played together for a long time and have fantastic chemistry with each other. That’s just something that Syracuse cannot bring to the table and will likely give the Irish a big upper hand come Saturday.