For the third time in as many games, an ACC squad looked completely helpless against a Syracuse team that has adjusted nicely to life after the Big East, as the Orange comfortably beat the North Carolina Tar Heels 57-45.
The final margin of victory didn't tell the whole story, but it rarely does.
With 12 minutes remaining in the first half, Syracuse trailed by four points. North Carolina forward James Michael McAdoo had just converted a breakaway dunk, giving him 10 points just eight minutes into the game.
The Tar Heels were rolling, and the "UNC somehow always comes to play against the best teams" narrative was writing itself.
But then Syracuse went on one of its patented runs.
21-5 run for Syracuse, North Carolina with one field goal in nine minutes.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) January 11, 2014
Over the next 10 minutes, Syracuse outscored North Carolina 21-3—a stretch that would have been even worse for the Tar Heels if Orange guard Trevor Cooney hadn't missed each of his five, mostly wide open, three-point attempts during that span.
Cooney is now 7-of-32 (21.9 percent) from three-point land in ACC play after going 43-of-86 (50.0 percent) in his first 13 games. I'll let you decide whether that's a potential problem going forward or an indication that this team is only going to be that much tougher to beat once he starts hitting shots again.
Just like that, the game was over. They played the final 22 minutes, but it was mostly a formality. The Tar Heels never had a chance against Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone.
At least they can try to find some solace in the fact that they're not alone in that club.
Add North Carolina's output to the 96 combined points of Miami and Virginia Tech and we find Syracuse's opponents in conference play are averaging a paltry 47 points per game. This was supposed to be the best conference in the country, but thus far it has merely been a whipping boy against which Syracuse's defense can perfect its craft.
Aside from winning the battle in transition or shooting a lot of 25-foot three-pointers, teams have no clue what to do against Syracuse's defense. On average, Syracuse's opponents are averaging 20.2 seconds per possession—the highest in the country, according to KenPom (subscription required).
Sometimes for Syracuse, though, the best defense is impeccable offensive rebounding. In their three ACC games, the Orange have grabbed 46 offensive rebounds. On the season, they have tracked down 40.2 percent of their own misses—good for the ninth-highest percentage in the country, according to KenPom.
As a result, their adjusted offensive efficiency ranks third in the country behind Creighton and Duke—teams who have two of the five best players in the game right now.
Who Will Win the ACC Regular Season Championship?
If we agree that a lot of made three-pointers is perhaps the only way to beat Syracuse, would you believe that Virginia Tech arguably should have been the ACC's best chance at handing the Orange a loss this season? The Hokies rank 16th in the nation in both three-point percentage and percentage of points coming from three-pointers.
Playing at home against Syracuse earlier this week, Virginia Tech mustered just 52 points while shooting 7-of-24 from beyond the arc. Remaining games against Duke and Pittsburgh (two of each) will be fun to watch and are highly anticipated, but will likely only serve to further prove how dominant this Syracuse team is.
A little over a week ago, I had Syracuse projected as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. At the time, it was merely an evaluation of their current profile and not necessarily a ringing endorsement for the Orange as the favorites to win it all.
But if the tournament started today, Syracuse would have to be my pick to cut down the nets in Arlington.