Chris Mack hopes to not turn the ball over against Syracuse and to force the Orange into contested jumpers.
The Syracuse Orange (17-8, 8-4) have its work cut out for themselves with three straight ranked opponents on the docket as part of its toughest stretch of the season. That will begin on Wednesday with the Louisville Cardinals (18-8, 9-4) at the Carrier Dome.
Louisville ranks top-20 in the country in both offensive and defensive efficiency (Ken Pom). The Cardinals average almost 80 points per game on 45.2 percent shooting from the floor and will look to hit that mark against Syracuse by protecting the ball and attacking the 2-3 zone.
First-year Louisville head coach Chris Mack has never coached against Syracuse or Jim Boeheim. I asked Mack on Monday if he’d exclusively practice his zone sets when going through his offense leading up to the Syracuse game. He said that he absolutely would and if they didn’t they wouldn’t truly be preparing for the game.
“We’re going to see 40 minutes of zone and we understand that. Different teams attack it in different ways. I think there’s success to be found by getting the ball to certain spots,” Mack said.
What that means is most coaches prefer to get the ball into middle of the Syracuse 2-3 zone (“ACC logo” anyone?) because it forces the center up, the defense as a whole has to shift and the offense opens up from there.
There’s also success to be had in the short-corner along the baseline (between center and forward) but Syracuse traps that area well and if teams aren’t quick to react it results in turnovers.
“I think ultimately your success will be found in how often you take care of the ball and don’t turn it over. Their guards [Tyus Battle and Frank Howard] are up top so it leads to easy run-outs for them. They’re one of the best teams in the country in stealing the basketball and converting live-ball turnovers into layups and transition threes.”
Louisville is somewhat turnover prone, averaging 13.0 turnovers per game as a team. Jordan Nwora is Louisville’s best scorer and a true volume shooter, but he turns it over more than twice for every assist. As a team, the Cardinals average just 0.9 more assists per game than turnovers per game.
Syracuse ranks ninth in the country in turnover percentage at 23.6 percent, or in other words forcing a turnover almost once in every four times on opponent possessions. The Orange are No. 24 in nation in steals per game, averaging 8.12 per contest.
“It’s a hell of a lot better to take a bad shot at the end of the shot clock than to turn it over in the middle of it,” Mack opined.
On the defensive end, Louisville doesn’t force many turnovers — the Cardinals are No. 226 in the country in that regard. Mack’s team averages just seven steals per game.
But Louisville does hold its opponents to just .926 points per defensive possession. Only 14 teams allow fewer points per defensive possession in the country. While the approach to defense might not necessarily change against Syracuse, Mack said he’d rather force Syracuse into long two-pointers and contested shots.
“They’ve got an attack with extremely confident perimeter players,” Mack said. “We have to try to keep the ball out of the lane and force tough shots. Those guys are capable of making (shots).”
The Syracuse offense has struggled mightily in recent weeks. The Orange haven’t scored over 70 points since its road win at Boston College. Even that scoring output required 31 points from Battle.
Last game Syracuse’s three most consistent offensive players all failed to reach double-digits in the scoring column. Howard dropped 21, but as a team the Orange only scored 58 points against NC State.
While we haven’t seen anything in recent weeks that would suggest an offensive turnaround, guys like Battle have proven to be tough shot makers. Even when he takes contested shots he finds the bottom of the net with frequency.
“I think consistently you have to make sure that they’re shooting challenged shots rather than shots that are open looks,” Mack stated. “Easier said than done. Big challenge with the personnel that Coach Boeheim has.”