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Next Up - Syracuse

Syracuse and Duke is almost always an interesting game.

Notre Dame v Duke
 DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 14: Head coach Jon Scheyer of the Duke Blue Devils questions referee John Gaffney during the second half against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 14, 2023 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 68-64.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Date 2/18 || Time 6:00 PM || Venue JMA Wireless Dome || Video ESPN

Duke heads to Syracuse Saturday for what is always a challenging road game and one that raises the question: is a program that is clearly trending down still dangerous?

As we have argued previously, and there’s really no way around this, Syracuse is a program in long-term decline. In its first year as an ACC team, Syracuse was 28-6. Since then, Jim Boeheim’s program has only topped 20 wins three times and 23 wins was the high mark. In the last four seasons, Boeheim has gone 18-14, 18-10, 16-17 and, so far this season, 16-10.

As always, we suggest tossing out the Covid season, but in Boeheim’s case, that’s one of his better years lately.

So it’s a program in decline, far off of Boeheim’s Hall of Fame high points. Does that mean Duke is guaranteed a win?

Well, no, of course not.

First, while Syracuse is not what it once was - the program has a clear whiff of mothballs and Vicks Vapor Rub - Boeheim has been coaching for longer than most of us have been alive and his mastery of the 2-3 zone gives the Orange a chance in any game.

In the last few seasons, it’s been hard to work it properly though. It works best with tall, long-armed defenders. Last year, with sons Jimmy and Buddy and Cole Swider, not to mention Joe Girard, it was tough to make it as difficult as it historically has been. That wasn’t the only year like that lately either.

This year though, with Benny Williams, Maliq Brown and Judah Mintz, anchored by Jesse Edwards, it is much more effective. Girard is back and makes that corner of the 2-3 short and vulnerable, but Duke isn’t exactly killing it on threes this season, so it doesn’t matter as much in this game.

The 2-3 can be highly effective, particularly against teams that haven’t experienced it, and always gives Syracuse, at a minimum, a puncher’s chance.

This team isn’t phenomenally great - SU is currently in eighth place, more or less where it has finished in the ACC the last few years - but there is some nice talent.

You can argue for either Mintz or Edwards as Syracuse’s best player or, if you want to be a contrarian, Girard. We have a lot of respect for Edwards and how much he has improved. He’s averaging a double-double now (14.3/10.4) and almost three blocks per game. He still tends to foul too much, but his improvement is really impressive. Any coach would love to have him.

However, we’d have to take Mintz as Syracuse’s best. The 6-3 freshman has averaged 15.6 ppg, 4.7 assists and 2.3 boards. He has the potential to leave after this year for the NBA Draft. It might be a mistake, but he could reasonably do it.

And of course there’s Girard. A surreal high school scorer - he smashed the New York high school scoring record set by Lance Stephenson by 1,817 points. That’s freakish. And as a senior, he put up 48.6 ppg.

Obviously no one this side of Pete Maravich is going to do that in college and Girard has been good but not great at Syracuse. He’s smallish at 6-1 and not hugely athletic. But he’s not a guy you want to lose track of and he’s the last guy you want on the line late in the game. This year, by the way, he’s averaging 16.9 ppg. He’s not an NBA player, but he’s going to light up a gym somewhere in Europe soon. He’ll be a cult figure overseas.

Those guys are the primary offensive threats. Williams averages 6.2, Brown 6.1 and freshman Chris Bell 6.8.

As you probably know, Duke has had trouble on the road and has played tentatively, which led to disasters at NC State and Miami. They can’t afford to do that at Syracuse.

The Blue Devils have also had trouble shooting from outside, which isn’t great against a zone that is both tight and also as fluid as a zone can be.

And if you’re in a half-court game against that, it’s going to be tough. Miami is an excellent perimeter team. The ‘Canes shot 7-23 from behind the line against Syracuse. Georgia Tech was 10-31 and 25-58 overall. UNC was 6-16 and 26-58 overall. Virginia Tech hit 13-32 and 32-60 overall. Virginia? 9-21/23-50. BC? 11-35/27-65. FSU? 6-21/28-62. And most recently, NC State? 9-34/30-72.

Of those games, Syracuse lost to Miami, beat Georgia Tech, lost three straight to UNC, Virginia Tech and Virginia, and is now on a three-game win streak over BC, FSU and NC State.

For Duke to win Saturday, a few things have to happen. First, the Devils have to play with confidence. They can’t get into a stretch where turnovers come in multiples. Second, they have to get back to offensive rebounding and a zone allows for more of that. Third, Kyle Filipowski is going to be crowded. He can’t get flustered by that, nor can he spin into double teams. And fourth, Duke has to move the ball effectively. We’ve seen hints this season of not just good ball movement but brilliant ball movement.

For the people who somehow think Scheyer is not doing a good job, you should keep an eye on ball movement as his career advances because at times this year, Duke has done absolutely brilliant things with the ball whipping around. When they hit that level, it’s breathtaking to watch. This is not something that is a holdover from the Coach K era. This is Scheyer teaching and emphasizing ball movement.

Needless to say, a good zone can complicate that, but if you keep the ball moving, ultimately good things will happen because no one can move as fast as a passed basketball.

We expect Duke will use Filipowski up high a fair amount to help crack the zone, which means he needs to make good decisions on his passes. And one of the best decisions he could make would be to find Dariq Whitehead when he’s open.

Whitehead is shooting well from three point range, but in his last four games he’s hit 9-13. That’s 69 percent, and that’s a guy you want to find. It won’t surprise us to be hanging out on Girard’s corner of the zone.

And while we’re not making a prediction here, let’s just say that after his two injuries slowed him down, this is a guy who is due for an offensive explosion. It’s may or may not happen Saturday, but it’s coming.

We’ve also seen really good play from Dereck Lively lately as well. He’s shown that he can be a dominant interior defender and a superior rebounder. And his offense has been advancing too. His shooting percentage is probably down a bit but in his case, that might be a positive because it means he’s diversifying his attack. Early on, he was scoring exclusively on dunks and alley-oops. Not so much now.

Syracuse, as we’ve said repeatedly, is in late-stage Boeheim. Now 78, he is clearly sharp as a tack. There is no notable decline in that man and he doesn’t look 78. He looks and acts like a younger man.

But coaching declines happen for many reasons, among them that the game changes and people tend to stick with what works even when it starts to fail. This was one of the reasons why Boeheim’s buddy Mike Krzyzewski continued to improve even late in his career: he always considered his coaching habits and changed them when they became counter productive.

Boeheim has done what most coaches people do: he sticks with what has worked and there’s no doubt the 2-3 still confounds. And it works best on teams that haven’t seen it. Jeremy Roach has seen it, but most of his teammates have not seen Boeheim’s.

If Duke keeps its composure, minimizes turnovers and addresses the zone properly, it could be a good day. And with a nice three-game home stand to follow, it would be a very helpful win.

DraftKings will post the odds here and we’ll update after they do. As always, we’ll add links as we find them.