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Beat the Best to Be the Best: Syracuse’s Path to an ACC Championship

With Syracuse dropping its last game to Miami, the Orange must advance through the ACC Tournament to have any chance at a NCAA tourney bid. One win isn’t going to do it for SU. Jim Boeheim’s squad has to beat the best to lift the ACC Tournament  trophy and go dancing. 

Florida State, Duke, Louisville, and Virginia are the four locks for the Big Dance from the ACC. All four teams have been ranked in the top 25 for most of the year, and are all currently ranked in the top 25 in RPI. (Virginia did drop out of the AP top 25 for a short period after three straight losses, but an eight-game win streak at the end of conference play has re-asserted its position.) 

Florida State has the best record in the ACC (25-5), and hasn’t lost a home or neutral court game this season. Guards M.J. Walker and Trent Forrest set the pace for the Seminoles. Both average over 10 points a game, and have won multiple games in the NCAA Tournament , advancing to the Elite Eight in 2018 and the Sweet Sixteen last year. But sophomore wing Devin Vassell is the standout, leading FSU in points, rebounds, and three point shooting percentage. FSU’s rotation also goes ten-deep. The Seminoles don’t seem to have one glaring weakness, but in the postseason, any team can go cold at any moment.

SU Key to Victory: Avoid first half foul trouble

Syracuse’s rotation is not comparable to Florida State’s in terms of talent or depth. That means SU’s starters must stay on the floor to compete with the Seminoles. Therefore, picking up two quick personals in the first half is unacceptable (that means you, Bourama Sidibe). 

Duke (25-6) is right behind FSU, albeit with one or two more questionable losses. The Blue Devils dropped a shocker to Stephen F. Austin early in the year, and have had some off nights in ACC play. But strong non-conference wins (Kansas, Michigan State, Georgetown) and the obvious pedigree of the program keeps Coach Krzyzewski’s team in the top 15. Vernon Carey is a force inside, and Tre Jones provides leadership and lockdown defense. Freshman wings Wendell Moore Jr. and Cassius Stanley need to have big games to propel Duke to its 27th ACC Tournament  championship.

SU Key to Victory: Contain Carey

Duke’s freshman big dominated Sidibe, Marek Dolezaj, and Quincy Guerrier in the Dome, scoring 26 points and grabbing 17 boards. Stopping Carey is a tall task, but the Orange must force scoring from the Blue Devils’ inconsistent back court.

After reeling off ten straight victories against ACC opponents, Louisville (24-7) looked like a force to be reckoned with. However, the Cardinals have struggled since  February, losing four of their last seven. ACC Player of the Year candidate Jordan Nwora has been taken out of the starting lineup at times, and U of L goes through stretches where they can’t buy a bucket. In its last loss to Virginia, Louisville had multiple three-minute scoring droughts in the first half alone. Nwora, Ryan McMahon, and Malik Williams must provide Chris Mack’s squad with consistent offensive production or else the once top-ranked Cardinals could face an early exit.

SU Key to Victory: Limit perimeter shooters

It seemed like every time SU came close to making a run in the KFC Yum! Center, Louisville knocked down a couple of open jumpers to shut down any Orange momentum. Quick on-ball pressure, group rotations, and defensive communication are paramount in the zone to limit spot-up opportunities.

Virginia (23-7) is the second seed in the ACC tournament, and the fourth lock for the  NCAA Tournament. The Cavaliers hit a rough patch early in conference, but have rebounded, beating all three of the aforementioned teams and rattling off eight victories to end the regular season. The pack line defense is as strong as ever. During the win streak, none of Virginia’s opponents scored over 65 points. However, UVA has trouble getting to 65 itself. Its offense is the worst in the ACC, averaging a measly 57.4 points a game. The defending national champions stifle opponents well enough to hide their flaws on offense. They also shoot 71% from the charity stripe, a sign of a composed team in crunch time. Mamadi Diakite leads the Cavaliers in points per game (13.6), but other players have stepped up as of late. Forward Jay Huff had Virginia’s first 17 points against Miami, and guard Kihei Clark dropped 18 in Saturday’s win over Louisville.

SU Key to Victory: Transition buckets, especially threes

The way to beat a stifling defense is to not let it get established. Buddy Boeheim and Joe Girard got open looks in Charlottesville because they beat the Cavaliers down the floor (and had the basketball gods on their side that day). Making threes will then force closeouts, and SU can attack the basket after swinging the ball around the perimeter.

Syracuse has to beat two of these teams for a shot at a possible First Four bid. To make the Round of 64, the Orange must certainly win out. SU has the #6 seed in the ACC tournament, meaning a victory over the winner of Virginia Tech vs. North Carolina will send them straight to a quarterfinal matchup with Louisville. Virginia looms in the semis, provided it handles either Notre Dame or Boston College. Duke and FSU are on the other side of the bracket, so the Orange must prevail over the Cardinals and Cavaliers to make it to a final against one of the two teams with the best records in the conference.

Of course, other teams besides SU could take down one of the conference’s leaders, but in a weak ACC, it doesn’t seem likely. Syracuse needs to harness whatever energy it has left and gear up to slay some giants.

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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