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Syracuse Takes On North Carolina Amid Troubled Seasons: How Each Team Got Here

Bourama Sidibe blocks Justin Champagnie's jump shot.

Tomorrow afternoon the Syracuse men’s basketball team hosts North Carolina at the Carrier Dome. It will be the final home game of the season.

For a typical powerhouse, it has been a disastrous year for the Tarheels. North Carolina began the at ranked 9th on the AP Poll but has plummeted since. UNC is last in the conference standings with a 4-13 ACC record and an 11-17 record overall.

One of the major causes of the Tarheels' struggles was the injury to guard Cole Anthony. The Freshman missed eleven games this season due to arthroscopic surgery. UNC was 6-3 before Anthony went out. When he returned, North Carolina was 10-10. It did not help either that the Tarheels lost seven games in a row once Anthony returned.

The son of former NBA player Greg Anthony, Cole leads North Carolina in scoring. He averages 19.4 points per game but has shot just 37.3% from the field this season. The stats are not incredibly inspiring for Anthony – he averages 3.8 assists per game, but 3.6 turnovers per game – however many still expect Anthony to get picked early in the first round of the NBA draft.

While Syracuse may not be the powerhouse program North Carolina is, it has also fallen short of expectations. The Orange struggled through the non-conference schedule (7-4 out of conference) but seemed to find their footing in mid-January. From January 11 to 25, SU won five games in a row. If not for a one-point loss to Clemson on January 28, Syracuse would have head into February on fire.

The Orange hit a brick wall to start this month, losing four of their first five games. Although SU played three ranked teams (Duke, Florida St, and Louisville), it blew a few opportunities to pick up season-changing wins.

Buddy Boeheim tries to make a pass around two Duke defenders.
Buddy Boeheim (35) tries to make a pass through a crowd in Syracuse's 97-88 loss to Duke on February 1.

On February 11, Syracuse led NC State 68-62 with just over six minutes remaining. The two teams were both considered to be on the NCAA Tournament “bubble,” making this a very important matchup resume-wise. The Orange got outscored 17-6 down the stretch and took home a loss.

The most crucial defeat, however, came in the next game. Syracuse took on Florida State, the 8th ranked team on the AP Poll at the point. The Seminoles were missing Devin Vassell, who leads the team in scoring and shoots nearly 43% from three-point range, yet the Orange could not capitalize. SU hung around, but could never get in enough rhythm offensively, and lost 80-77. Buddy Boeheim could have been the difference for Syracuse, but he had his worst game of the season. The sharpshooter had 0 points in 33 minutes.

Elijah Hughes takes a shot against Florida State as a defender jumps out at him.
Elijah Hughes (33) takes a jump shot against Florida State earlier this month. Hughes' game-high 25 points were not enough in the 80-77 loss.

So, both teams are not where they wanted to be and, barring a miracle, neither will be in a position to receive an at-large bid. That means the only opportunity to play top-level postseason basketball is by winning the ACC tournament. Some would consider this game less meaningful, however, it may be crucial preparation for the tournament.

For North Carolina, there is an opportunity to end the regular season on a high note. On Tuesday, UNC beat NC State 85-79. The win ended a seven-game losing streak and got Cole Anthony his first win since December 2019.

UNC has Syracuse, Wake Forest, and Duke left on its schedule. If the Tarheels can take care of business against the Orange and Demon Deacons, they may be able to ride the win streak into Camden and upset the Blue Devils. As seen in their last matchup, anything is possible when Duke and North Carolina play. Is this a likely scenario? No. Many people would probably consider it impossible, but these teams will need to pull off the spectacular to steal a tournament spot.

The Orange have won back-to-back games and could also benefit from a couple wins heading into the postseason, however, the level of competition they play down the stretch makes these games less impactful. For Syracuse, it is more about building confidence. When the Orange lost four of five to start February, they shot over 40% from the field in only one of those games.

Syracuse would benefit greatly from a more confident Buddy Boeheim. The Sophomore has averaged just under 11 points per game and shot 29.5% from three-point range in February. Last month, Boeheim averaged 18.5 points per game made 42% of his threes.

Syracuse has relied upon Quincy Guerrier to make up for some of Boeheim’s lost scoring. Guerrier, who averages seven points per game, scored double-digit points in four consecutive games from February 8 to Feb 19. The Canadian Freshman can use these next few games to get more comfortable in the offense.

Quincy Guerrier rising up to take a shot over a Pittsburgh defender.
Quincy Guerrier (1) rising up to take a shot in Syracuse's 72-49 over Pittsburgh.

Neither season has gone to plan for these two historic programs. Both have dealt with injuries, both have underperformed, but neither team is eliminated yet. It will take an improbable ACC tournament run from either team to qualify for March Madness.

These next three games may not seem very meaningful; however, they present an important opportunity for SU and UNC to prepare for the postseason. Syracuse and North Carolina tip-off at 4 p.m. Saturday. Coverage begins on WAER at 3:30 p.m.