The beginning of the season, and the Richard Pitino Era, couldn't have gotten off to a much better start with the Gophers sitting at 5-0. They've beaten up the cupcakes, survived a tough road game against a decent opponent, and proved good enough to battle a better than expected Coastal Carolina game and come out with a victory. Now things get really interested, before getting super boring, as they head out to Maui to take on some very good opponents, starting with Syracuse.
As Pitino said in his press conference - you know what you're going to get from Boeheim and the Orange, and that's not a knock on them. The first thing you have to worry about is that pesky 2-3 zone, and this year might be it's best iteration. Syracuse can trot out five guys who are 6-7 or bigger to play it if they choose and they won't lose anything offensively because Michael Gbinje (transfer from Duke) can play the point. Usually, however, they'll only have four of these guys and then another guard, either Tyler Ennis (6-4) or Trevor Cooney (also 6-4). All this height and length means they not only can shut down a whole lot of passing lanes, but it also cuts down on the amount of the floor smaller guards (GULP!) can actually see, so one of the best ways to beat a zone, a skip pass, becomes close to impossible. It also means if you're going to try to kill the zone with 3-point shooting, you'll need to create that much extra room in order to get a shot off. In short, running this kind of zone with these kind of athletes with this kind of size under a coach who's been teaching it for like 60 years is pretty unfair.
What that combination has resulted in this season is a team that, well, is pretty much what you'd expect: they're creating a ton of turnovers (27% of opponent's possessions end in a turnover, 5th in the country) with a ton of steals (18%, 1st in country) and blocks (21%, 7th) and controlling the boards on both ends (8th in offensive rebounding, 21st in defensive). Syracuse sports four players in the top 200 in steal percentage with two in the top 175 for blocked shot % (and another at 407). This is a tough, tough defense to crack, but luckily there's one big weakness so far this year and it's one that plays into what the Gophers need to do to win this game - three point shooting.
Although there's some debate as to whether how much three point shooting is controlled by the defense given that there's very little correlation from year-to-year, especially compared to other statistics, but Syracuse's opponents have shot 37% this year, ranking the Orange D 253rd in the country, and you don't end up with that kind of ranking unless you're giving up open shots. The Gophers have done a tremendous job of taking care of the ball this year (20th in the nation in turnover %) so if they can continue to do so and use ball penetration and quick passing (whoever plays the high post is going to be very important in this game) to get some open looks and get hot, that's going to be huge for the Gophers to pull it off.
Offensively, the Orange have actually been pretty crappy. They're shooting the ball like hell so far and can't make free throws, but they take care of it pretty well and make up for all those misses by crashing the glass really well - not too far off what you'd expect from a young but very tall and athletic team with a freshman point guard. With the departure of three major pieces from last year's team (Brandon Triche, Michael Carter-Williams, and James Southerland) C.J. Fair has tried to step in as the go to scorer, and although his stats are up (14.5 ppg to 18.0 ppg) his efficiency is down (more shots, lower percentage going in). Same story with Jerami Grant, and with the freshman Ennis really struggling to shoot (29% from the floor) and their high field goal percentage inside guys (DaJuan Coleman and Rakeem Christmas) not getting/taking a lot of shots they've struggled for reliable scoring.
Syracuse was one of my top 10 teams coming into the season, and despite a struggle against St. Francis (NY) I'm not sure there's really any need to revise that. Although I've been impressed by the Gophers so far and I'm starting to think they're better than I initially thought, going up against a team this talented and this big is too much in my opinion. The Gophers could end up winning by getting hot and hitting a bunch of threes, and I've reached a point now where a win here actually wouldn't surprise me, but I think Syracuse is too big for a team with small guards and little to no depth in the paint. Hopefully I'm wrong, but as long as the Gophers can go 2-1 I'll call this a very successful tournament.
Syracuse 70, Minnesota 63.