The No. 2 Syracuse Orange enter 2014 as one of seven undefeated teams in Division I. With quality wins over such opponents as Villanova, Baylor, Indiana, Minnesota, California and St. John’s, the Orange used the early season to fine-tune their team in preparation for play in a new conference.
Syracuse, meet the ACC.
On Jan. 4, Miami (8-5, 0-1 ACC) will travel to Syracuse (13-0, 0-0) to play the first ever ACC conference game at the Carrier Dome. Miami and Syracuse’s next opponent, Virginia Tech, are old Big East foes of the Orange, but not necessarily marquee matchups.
Jan. 11, however, will be the first of a handful of dream games, as Roy Williams and his No. 19 North Carolina Tar Heels will travel to Syracuse to play in front of a crowd that is sure to top 30,000.
Beyond playing the likes of Miami, Boston College, Pittsburgh and Duke twice, Syracuse will play every team in the ACC at least once.
Before the season began, the ACC looked like it might be the best conference in the nation and something to be feared, but with only three ranked teams, the might of the top-heavy ACC may have been a bit overstated.
The ACC is still a talented conference, but its depth is not at the level which Syracuse has grown accustomed to over the last 30-plus years in the Big East. Next season, Louisville will replace Maryland in the ACC, adding to the cream at the top.
For now, Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Florida State look to be about as tough as it will get for the Orange.
Barring injuries or eligibility issues, the Orange are good enough to win the ACC, which means winning the ACC tournament, as the ACC does not have a regular-season champion. They are also good enough to have the best conference record, but Duke is very talented and might have the best player on any team in the NCAA in the form of Jabari Parker.
Unless something significant happens, the ACC has the feel of a two-horse race.
Syracuse is not perfect by any means, but the team has come together nicely after losing Michael Carter-Williams, James Southerland and Brandon Triche. Any criticisms at this point would be nitpicking, but the rest of the ACC isn’t going to just roll over for the Orange.
Here are five ways Syracuse can maintain its success and take the ACC crown.
Freshman sensation Tyler Ennis has been the engine that moves the Syracuse Orange.
His 4.67 assist-to-turnover ratio is second only to Pitt’s James Robinson in the nation and his ability to control the pace of the game is that of a seasoned veteran rather than a 19-year-old kid who has only played 13 regular-season games.
Ennis has shown that he can score when needed, but doesn’t force the issue. In a tough game, such as the Villanova contest on Dec. 28, Ennis scored 20 and helped the Orange pull away after being down 18 points in the first half.
Against Eastern Michigan, on New Year’s Eve, Ennis did not score a point but only shot the ball four times. He wasn’t cold, he just wasn’t needed as a scorer. What he did, however, was rack up nine assists, five rebounds and three steals.
In his wildest dreams, coach Jim Boeheim could not have imagined the speed at which Ennis has matured. At just 6’2”, he can score from the outside or sink floaters in the lane. On defense, his 2.7 steals per game are No. 9 in the nation.
It seems that the only question remaining about Ennis is his ceiling, which is bad news for the ACC.
Trevor Cooney is one of the best three-point shooters in the nation.
Let that sentence sink in for a second.
Last season, as a redshirt freshman in limited minutes, Cooney had trouble living up to the hype attached to his name as a sharpshooter and made just under 27 percent of his attempts from long range.
With James Southerland leaving, the Orange’s three-point shooting looked to be in danger, as it was going to be left in the hands of Cooney and his 3.4 points per game.
This season, thanks to offseason work and the guidance of Gerry McNamara, Cooney has people asking, “Southerland who?”
Cooney has more than quadrupled his scoring output to 14.3 points per game, which is thanks to his 50 percent three-point shooting (43-of-86).
To put it in perspective, of the nearly 100 players who have attempted a minimum of 80 three-pointers, only Kyle Anderson of Delaware (.522) and Ethan Wragge of Creighton (.500) have an equal or better long-range percentage.
Cooney’s precision forces teams to stretch their defenses, which allows C.J. Fair and Co. room to work. With teams being forced to decide how they want the Orange to score, or not score, Cooney has grown into a powerful weapon.
Traditionally a liability for Syracuse, free-throw shooting has actually improved over last season.
More fouls are being called this season with new rules emphasizing freedom of movement, which places an even greater responsibility on players to hit their free throws.
To illustrate this point, since the turn of the century, Syracuse has attempted an average of 765 shots from the charity stripe each season while making an average of 512 (.669).
This season, in 13 games, the Orange have already hit 228 of 332 free throws (.687), which puts them on pace to go 543-of-791 for the season—31 points above their average.
Not only are the Orange taking more shots, they are shooting a higher percentage, as there have only been three seasons since 2000 during which Syracuse made a higher percentage of its free throws than it has this season.
The importance of free throws can never be understated and the fact that the Orange are hitting them is just one more strength of this team.
I’ve mentioned that Tyler Ennis is No. 9 in the nation in steals, but not to be forgotten is his backcourt mate, Trevor Cooney.
Cooney comes in at No. 23 in the nation with 2.31 steals per game. The two make a formidable pair at the top of the 2-3 zone, and as a team, Syracuse is stealing 10.08 balls per game, which makes it the No. 7 team in the nation in that category.
The Orange are forcing 16.6 turnovers per game and are only turning the ball over 10.3 times per game. That 6.3 turnover margin ranks No. 5 in the nation.
With so many teams that haven’t seen the Syracuse zone up close, keeping these numbers up is a major key to solving the ACC.
In Syracuse’s 78-62 win over No. 8 Villanova, the Orange saw a method of attack that is usually reserved for teams that have never faced the 2-3 zone.
Villanova attempted 31 three-point shots and made only 10 of them. For the game, the Wildcats went 19-of-50 from the floor, which means that they only made nine shots that weren’t three-pointers.
Villanova made its first four attempts from behind the arc, so it’s hard to blame the team, but head coach Jay Wright knows that shots never fall at such a high percentage for an entire game and his squad certainly wasn’t going to keep that up against Syracuse.
Villanova showed no inside-out ball movement and rarely posted a man up top in order to effectively move the ball in and out of the zone. If ACC teams take the Villanova approach to the 2-3 zone, the season could be a breeze because teams can’t hit enough threes to beat the zone.
Surely any team can win if it hits all of its three-pointers, but making them is the trick.
Syracuse fans may never understand why Villanova took this approach for the whole game, but they would love to see more of it as the season progresses.