When: Sunday 6pm
Where: The Carrier Dome in Syracuse
About the Orange: Well, unless you have been completely entrenched in football and football recruiting and waiting until now to check out hoops, you should already know that Syracuse is sporting a perfect 22-0 record and ranked #1 in all the land. I wouldn't call them a totally dominant team like the Kentucky team of Anthony Davis and company two years ago, but they are very, very good and have been extremely clutch down the stretch all season long. Clemson is now in the second portion of the Road to Perdition portion of the schedule and has already met STS's goal of 2 wins in this stretch, so it is simply gravy time now. That's good news because there is a better chance that Clemson basketball won't top the football team's 49 points in the Dome back in October than there is of an upset win.
Syracuse employs a 2-3 zone almost exclusively which has become more of a matchup zone in recent years to combat the three-pointer more. The only time they vary from this is when they press, which will fall back to a 2-3 anyway. Boeheim made the decision to completely scrap playing man to man a few years back and said as much when I saw him speak at a clinic back in the spring of last year. The only man to man Syracuse employs is in practice to work on their man offenses. This presents challenges for just about every team they face, but you figure a team as offensively challenged as Clemson is will have some major problems finding points consistently in this game.
Boeheim has done a masterful job of recruiting to his system. He has a team full of long and athletic players that cover space extremely well. The zone will morph from 2-3 to 2-2-1 to even some 1-2-2 at times depending on the alignment of the offense. Usually you would think you could hurt the zone from 3, and in some cases you can, but the Orange defend the perimeter very well as evidenced by their just over 33% FG percentage given up. That number took a jump recently because Duke nailed a whopping 15 threes on them...and still lost. Having watched them play a few times this year, I can tell you that clean looks at three are not that common against them unless you are several feet beyond the arc. Since Terrence Oglesby is no longer a Tiger, I don't foresee us being able to exploit that too much.
The best part of playing zone all the time, and both Boeheim and Rick Pitino will attest to this, is that it severely limits what options your offense has in attacking them. Boeheim was very forthcoming about how folks try to attack his zone at the clinic I attended and even went over a few things that sometimes give his zone problems. In the past, such as when Clemson beat his team back in the NIT under Oliver Purnell, a hot half of shooting or good execution vs. the zone could coax them into playing some man to man. That no longer is the case and the Cuse has found that nine times out of ten teams just can't consistently hurt them in the same way for an entire game.
In order to have success against them, it is imperative that you have a high post presence. This guy needs to be a skilled player that can hit that face up jump shot as well as be a driving threat and a good passer. Michigan used Mitch McGary in this role in the NCAA tourney last year and he was extremely effective. At this point you are likely wondering who Clemson has that could possibly do a portion of this. The only answer is KJ McDaniels, with the slight possibility of Jaron Blossomgame. I doubt KJ will see much time there, though I would put him there if I were Brad. We stand a better chance trying to attack from the high post than swinging it around the perimeter until the shot clock runs down. Duke used Jabari Parker and a little of Rodney Hood and Sulaimon in this role and it helped them put up much bigger numbers offensively than Syracuse normally gives up. However, Duke still lost the game despite of this and it might take three games for Clemson to reach 15 three-pointers made, maybe more.
Another approach to attacking the zone is using high ball screens in order to force the ball side wing to come up very high to cover for the top guard who gets screened. You can get a three-point look in the corner against this sometimes, but Syracuse will run their center all the way out to cover that shot (which a normal 2-3 zone would never do). I would recommend trying this if for no other reason it opens up offensive rebounding opportunities when they are this out of shape. Of course, you need a guy coming off that ball screen who can hit a three to force this action. Zones are harder to box out in and the "Cuse can be had on the offensive glass from time to time. Pittsburgh, Duke, and Notre Dame were able to rack up double figures in offensive boards in their games. Clemson absolutely must get 14+ offensive boards to have any shot Sunday barring some act of God shooting (very unlikely).
Syracuse is not extremely deep, but their first five are extremely good, obviously. It all starts with point guard Tyler Ennis who is getting better and better by the week. He can be prone to turnovers, but he has also been a major reason Syracuse has pulled out so many contested games down the stretch. Then you have Trevor Cooney who is one of the best at getting steals in the country and is coming off a monster game where he nearly killed Notre Dame by himself hitting 9 threes and scoring 33 points. At small forward is preseason (and favorite at this point) ACC player of the year CJ Fair. The four man is Jerai Grant's little brother Jerami. It hurts deeply that both Grant brothers ended up at Big East-now ACC schools instead of Clemson. He's long and can exploit a smaller guy inside as he did to Duke in the second half. The one platoon position for Syracuse is center where Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita split time. Christmas has gotten more and more of these minutes lately and only foul trouble changes that prospect now. Christmas is your typical Syracuse center in that he's a good shot blocker and can clean things up around the rim very well.
Syracuse's shot blocking ability across the back line is a major reason their zone is effective. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a team work a high/low action or attack from the short corner and get what looks like a clean lay-up or dunk attempt only to see Grant or Christmas or Fair come flying in from behind to block it. You must be relentless inside against them and not be deterred by a shot getting blocked. You also can't be lazy with your passing and not use pass fakes or Cooney and company are going to be going the other way for dunks. When BC played them earlier, what was a close game got turned when BC threw about four passes in a six possession stretch seemingly right to Cooney who enjoyed dunk after dunk on the other end.
I foolishly gave us a puncher's chance against the Tar Holes in Chapel Hill, but you won't see me predicting much success on Sunday. I'll be watching and hoping for some out of nowhere effort that would shock the basketball world, but this is a terrible matchup for the Tigers. KJ is going to have to work extremely hard on defense to deal with Fair and Cooney is much bigger than both Filer and Roper at the 2 position. Blossomgame will have to check Grant and Nnoko must control the rim area against Christmas and Keita. Rod Hall will have to contain Ennis. The one silver lining is Syracuse doesn't play at a particularly fast pace, mainly because they really only use 6 guys for any meaningful minutes. Clemson will absolutely have to make it a slug fest in the half court like the last two games have been. Keep Syracuse under 55 points and there's a shot to win. Anything better than 55 for the Syracuse and it might be another baby seal clubbing on the road like we saw at Pitt and UNC.
In closing, I say again that this is merely a gravy game. You hope for Clemson to show some fight and growth from the last week when they really rebounded well from an embarrassment beyond description in the Dean Dome. I'm looking for Jordan Roper and Adonis Filer to take hold of the 2 guard spot and allow for Harrison to strictly be a backup for KJ going forward. I'm looking for Blossomgame to show better consistency and gain more confidence. I'm looking for Landry Nnoko to show more signs that he could become a back to the back option for us down the road. These things are vital for the stretch run when Clemson completes the Road to Perdition and gets back to some kind of normalcy in matchups/venues.