With seven games in the books, Syracuse basketball is still searching for their identity. Since falling to defending champion Virginia in the season opener, Syracuse (4-3, 0-1) have experienced a rejuvenating change at point guard, a 97-point outburst, and most recently, consecutive losses that have sent this team back to the drawing board.
On Tuesday, the Orange welcome the Iowa Hawkeyes (5-2, 0-0) to the Dome for the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge at 7:00. On the heels of an uninspiring 85-64 loss to Penn State in the third place game of the NIT Season Tipoff, the Orange have lost two straight after exploding for 97 points in a win over Bucknell on November 23. The Hawkeyes fell to San Diego State 83-73 in the Las Vegas Invitational Title Game last Friday, however, that came after Iowa stunned No. 12 Texas Tech 72-61 in the semifinal round. While both teams will look to get back in the win column against a non-conference opponent, the Hawkeyes have Syracuse handily beat in the resumé column.
After the departure of Tyus Battle and Frank Howard from Syracuse's backcourt, the offense was due for a change in identity. Since Joe Girard III took the reigns of the starting point guard duties, that identity has become three-point shooting. In all four Syracuse victories, the Orange have shot at least 37 percent from deep.
In their three losses, they've shot 17 percent, 26 percent, and 27 percent.
The success from behind the arc has undoubtedly driven this team's success, and failure. On average, Syracuse attempts eight three-pointers a game. Subsequently, the Hawkeyes average eight three-pointers against per game, and opponents have shot 33 percent from deep against them. The numbers suggest opportunities for the Orange to capitalize on the deep ball in this one, but the difference will be made in Syracuse's consistency, or lack thereof.
A large part of that success rests on the shoulders of redshirt junior Elijah Hughes. In his second full season in orange and white, the 6-6 forward has emerged as the top option in Jim Boeheim's offense. Shooting forty percent from deep and averaging 19 points a game, Hughes can singlehandedly change the dynamic of the SU offense when effective. Behind him, Buddy Boeheim and Joe Girard III shoulder just as much responsibility on offense. With no Tyus Battle to account for, defenses can, have, and will focus much more of their defensive attention on Hughes, so it's critical for Boeheim and Girard to provide that supplementary scoring threat from outside. Girard has shot a combined 4-20 over his last two. Boeheim has gone 7-27 over that stretch, and these two players must shake their shooting woes if this offense wants any consistency.
The offense does not look anything like that of last year, which produced an eight-seed in the NCAA Tournament, so it's up to Jim Boeheim to create ways to open up his deep threats.
On the defensive side, the keys to success can be boiled down to a single word: rebounding. Syracuse has won the rebound battle in all four of their victories. In their three losses, opponents have out-rebounded the Orange 143-87, good for a minus-56 rebound differential. Bourama Sidibe has slid into the starting center role this season, but his 6.4 rebounds per game will not suffice against the increasingly more talented opposition.
Speaking of talented opposition, Iowa will present the most dangerous big man Syracuse has seen this season. Junior Luka Garza stands at 6-11, 260 pounds, and enters the contest averaging a double double of 19.6 PPG and 10.1 RPG. For the sake of comparison, Sidibe stands at 6-10, 210 pounds. Quincy Guerrier comes closest to matching Garza's weight at 220 pounds, but at 6-7, he can't be relied on to spell Garza on the glass consistently. Guerrier has shown shades of Oshae Brissett with his versatilitiy and physical nature near the rim, but as a freshman, he still needs polishing.
The ineffiency at the center position has emerged as one of the most pressing issues on this team. Sidibe, Marek Dolezaj, and Jesse Edwards are the only players over 6-7. At just 185 pounds, Dolezaj does not have the build required to play a consistent five. Meanwhile, Jesse Edwards (6-11, 215 lbs) has logged over ten minutes in just two games. The duties have fallen almost solely on Sidibe, who will have his hands full against a bigger and stronger Luka Garza.
Iowa has surpassed 78 points in all but one contest. The Hawkeyes are a talented and versatile team with a major win under their belt, while the Orange are still trying to find themselves as a unit. Syracuse must keep the rebound margin slim and regain their stroke from deep to avoid falling to 4-4 early in the season.
The game can be seen on ESPN 2 and heard on WAER, 88.3 FM at 7:00 on Tuesday.