There are no easy wins in the ACC. All of a sudden, one of the worst offensive teams in the country couldn’t miss. The referees did them no favors.
The excuses ring hollow after Syracuse’s 73-59 loss to Georgia Tech — one of the conference’s cellar dwellers — Saturday at the Carrier Dome (on national TV). To put that in perspective, if the Orange had won by 14, they would have barely covered the spread. This was supposed to be a layup. Instead, it was an airball.
“Georgia Tech’s defense was just too difficult for us tonight,” Jim Boeheim said in his postgame press conference. “We probably — obviously — settled for too many 3’s, but it is a difficult defense. To get inside, you have to make some from the perimeter. We didn’t.”
After a groggy, uninspired first half that ended with a one-point lead for the Yellow Jackets, the Orange did the impossible and played even worse in the second half. When the first media timeout mercifully arrived, the visitors owned an 11-point lead. It never shrunk below nine. The Ramblin’ Wreck, owners of two league wins and a three-point loss to a top-10 Virginia Tech team, appear to have improved immensely as the season has progressed. But still — Georgia Tech lost to Gardner Webb by double-figures and its best player is a 6-feet-in-heels point guard.
Let’s put on our detective hats and try to determine who or what was most at fault for the debacle Saturday. If we’re lucky, someone will offer us a CSI: Syracuse spin-off or the rights to the Clue sequel.
Suspect 1: Frigid shooting
As your favorite sportscaster probably likes to say: “It may be cold outside, but things are heating up inside!” Tonight, that would have been not only hackneyed, but flat wrong.
“We think [we] can make shots, but we can’t,” Boeheim told Matt Park after the game. “I’m not sure why we haven’t gotten that message yet. Tonight, we were 7-for-33 [from 3]. We fought hard but we just physically have got to get the ball around the basket and get to the foul line. We didn’t do that tonight.”
“We think we can make shots, but we can’t” threatens to become Syracuse’s slogan this season. SU can chuck with the best of them, but only in terms of volume. Something doesn’t add up here: 42.5 percent of the Orange’s field goal attempts come from deep, the third-highest rate in the ACC. They make less than 30 percent of them, which is worst in the ACC. Wouldn’t it make sense for the most-accurate teams to shoot more, and the least-accurate teams to shoot less?
“I’m confident in my teammates,” Frank Howard reiterated after the game. “If they take any shot, I feel like it can go in.”
Message received. The crazy thing is: I still believe Elijah Hughes and Tyus Battle are good shooters — maybe good enough to bury bombs in the NBA. As a unit, though, consistent efficiency simply eludes this team like the football eludes Charlie Brown when Lucy’s holding it.
Want to throw up? This should help: Syracuse has fallen short of 30 percent from distance in more games this season than it has eclipsed that number. Thirty percent is great in baseball; it should never be the threshold for successful shooting in basketball, from any range. The Orange have still failed to reach that mark more often than not.
Suspect 2: Shoddy defense
Even after a volcanic showing tonight, Georgia Tech’s sits comfortably in the ACC’s basement. The Ramblin’ Wreck rank 204th in the nation in offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com; the next-worst in the conference is Pittsburgh at 175th.
You would have thought every player is Teen Wolf if you only watched them tonight. The Yellow Jackets singed the nets to the tune of 59.5 percent from the floor (25-of-42) and 50 percent from downtown (6-of-12).
But it’s unfair to Georgia Tech to chalk the numbers up to a simple hot shooting night. The Yellow Jackets lived in the restricted area; at one point, their edge in the paint was 18-2, and they finished 36-16. The first two players to crack double figures tonight were their two starting big men, James Banks (9.3 points per game coming in) and Abdoulaye Gueye (5.2).
Part of their success was thanks to Syracuse’s full-court press, which offered layups on a platter if beaten down the floor. “We did a good job on the press,” Boeheim said. “But we really aren’t able to press that well, that long.”
But the Orange would not have needed to break the glass on that in-case-of-emergency strategy if Georgia Tech didn’t own the interior — on both ends of the floor — for the balance of the game.
Suspect 3: The zebras
If I had a nickel for every time an indignant person wearing orange loudly chastised a referee tonight, I could buy the naming rights to the Carrier Dome.
The officiating wasn’t sublime tonight. I understand that. Tyus Battle’s arm got raked as he soared toward a cathartic-yet-probably-inconsequential tomahawk, and the whistles remained silent. I’m sure Josh Pastner and company could play this same game.
It’s OK to be upset about a few calls. But if the referees were the reason you left the Dome stewing tonight, your aggression is misplaced.
The Verdict: Frigid Shooting, in the Carrier Dome, with a Basketball (while Shoddy Defense Cheered and Blind Zebras Watched)
That’s who killed Syracuse’s chances at beating one of the few ACC schools it owns an advantage against on paper. But before you panic, consider the possibility that the Orange just ran into an elite defensive team that couldn’t miss on the other end. Defense is like the Travelocity gnome: it always travels, and you can’t escape it. We knew the Yellow Jackets — 10th in the nation in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings — wouldn’t stroll into the Dome and give the Orange easy buckets; we didn’t know they would catch fire and pile up easy buckets of their own.
In the best conference in America, that chance exists every night. Elijah Hughes is SU’s only major contributor who hasn’t experienced the ACC gauntlet. “It’s tough,” Hughes said of the conference. “No game is a breeze, and no matter the record or whatever, it’s gonna be a battle.”
It won’t be a battle Monday at Duke if Syracuse plays like it did tonight.