Throughout the football season, we previewed players for Orange fans to watch each week when SU took to the gridiron. With that season behind us, our focus, along with so many Syracuse fans has shifted to the hardwood where SU is already off to an impressive 6-0 start. The Orange has looked excellent in a number of areas throughout the first few games of the season, but it certainly hasn’t faced anything like it will this Saturday in the finale of the Hoophall Miami Invitational. #2 Kansas stands between SU and its seventh straight victory down in Miami on Saturday. Really, the level of talent that the Jayhawks have make their entire team players to watch, but let’s hone in a few that could make a gigantic impact this weekend. With that let’s hawk the Jayhawks and meet three KU players to watch on Saturday.
Devonte’ Graham (G, 6-2, 185)
One thing we’ve seen the past two seasons from the SU basketball team is just how important solid point guard play is for a team. Whether it be John Gillon’s showing last year or Frank Howard’s breakout performances so far this season, the way your point guard plays typically dictates how the team plays as a whole. For Kansas, senior point guard Devonte’ Graham is the man that runs the show. A third-year starter from Brewster Academy (yes, the same school that both Buddy Boeheim and Brendan Paul currently attend) Graham is a stellar talent that does just about everything well. The North Carolina native averages nearly 16 points a game and has done his scoring in a variety of ways. Not only does he shoot well from beyond the arc (36%), he also has a knack for getting the ball to the bucket. Graham is so quick that he can easily manipulate his way into the painted area and finish with both hands around the rim. Even when he can’t quite evade defenders, he does an excellent job of creating and absorbing contact to draw fouls and get easy buckets. The way he finishes near the rim becomes even more impressive when you look at his size. Based on his stature, you don’t expect him to be so dangerous in the paint, but he’s just that special a player. Scoring isn’t the only thing you should be looking for from Graham either. He’s also the best passer on the team and averages a team-leading 8.5 assists per game. With an incredibly high basketball IQ that allows him to make quick and educated decisions about whether to create his own shot or dish it off to a teammate, Graham is going to make an impact in this game. Last time out Graham poured in 35 points against Toledo. It’s up to Syracuse to try to limit that impact.
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (G/F, 6-8, 205)
While Graham may be the most talented player on the Kansas roster, Svi Mykhailiuk (Muh-ky-luke) is probably the most dangerous. The Ukraine native leads the Jayhawks in scoring this season at an 18 point per game clip. Like Graham, Mykhailiuk is an incredible three-point shooter, but he’s even more lethal from beyond the arc. The senior guard/forward combo is shooting an astonishing 56% from deep. Keep in mind that that number is even better than his overall field goal percentage which still clocks in at an impressive 51% mark. While he’s known for being a sharpshooter, and rightly so, you can’t look past the rest of Mykhailiuk’s game. He’s fantastic in transition whether it be finishing or passing to an open teammate on the break. He’s got a deadly mid-range jumper that makes him a more well-rounded scorer and he takes great care of the rock and rarely turns the ball over. Essentially, Mykhailiuk does all the little things so well. He won’t blow you out of the water with incredible athleticism or bounce, but it is his versatility that makes him so dangerous. On a side note to that versatility, along with basketball and soccer, Mykhailiuk also lettered in PING-PONG in high school in Ukraine. Yeah, Mykhailiuk is pretty cool.
Udoka Azubuike (C, 7-0, 280)
Despite starting the young season, 6-0, there have been a couple of spots where SU has looked vulnerable so far this season. One of those spots is allowing points in the paint. Now, you may be thinking that that’s impossible because the 2-3 zone is designed to compact the painted area and take away easy looks at the bucket. Well, not so fast. When SU operates out of the 2-3 zone, the wings on the back end of the zone play slightly higher than the center. When the ball gets to the wings on offense, it becomes more of a 2-2-1 than a 2-3. Because of that the backdoor and baseline are often left wide open if SU’s opponents can get the ball there, typically by going through the center of the zone and attracting attention away from the basket and to the ball. Both Trayvon Reed for Texas Southern and Bruno Fernando for Maryland had field days with the backdoor of the 2-3 zone, putting up 12 and 13 points respectively and shooting a near-perfect 91% from the floor. Reed stands at 7-foot-2, 240 pounds, while Fernando goes 6-foot-10, 240 pounds and they were able to wreak havoc when they were on the floor. So imagine what a 7 foot, 280-pound behemoth can do to the Orange. Insert Udoka Azubuike, the Jayhawks second-leading scorer at an even 16 point per game. A former 5-star recruit, Azubuike was the 22nd ranked recruit in the class of 2016 but missed all but 11 games last year with a wrist injury. The Nigeria native is a force to be reckoned with and is an intimidating presence in the post where he most often uses his height and weight advantage to dominate smaller defenders. But don’t let that size fool you, he’s also got a couple of nifty post moves that make him even more dangerous on the offensive end. When combined, that size and skill are a ruthless combination that has led to an astounding 75% field goal percentage in the early stages of the season. He’s also a skilled shot blocker and defender who can clog up the lane and take away easy shots from the Orange. The only weakness apparent in Azubuike’s game lies in his free-throw shooting. Like many big men, the sophomore struggles from the charity stripe, converting on just 40% of his attempts so far in 2017. If SU wants to contend with Azubuike’s size and physicality, it may want to foul him early, often and hard to make him earn his share at the line. Otherwise, he is going to be serious matchup issue for the Orange.