What team will dethrone Syracuse as No. 1?

Now that Syracuse has ascended to the top of the rankings, pundits have begun their annual complaining that the Orange hasn’t played a difficult schedule, hasn’t played outside of New York and is vastly overrated.

Admittedly, that is almost accurate. Syracuse’s strength of schedule is ranked 234th in the KenPom rankings, and the farthest SU has traveled is to New York City. But that does not mean the Orange is destined to lose as soon as it sets foot outside the Empire State.

What teams have the best chance to dethrone Syracuse from the top spot in college hoops?

For one, the team that first beats the Orange will need to take care of the ball. The Syracuse defense ranks first nationally in steals per game (12.3) and second in opponent turnovers per possession (27.9 percent). While the Orange has been winning by an average margin of more than 22 points per game, it has frequently looked sluggish and ineffective in its half-court offense. So far in the young season, the SU defense has bailed out the offense, sparking runs that allow the Orange to take control.

The most recent example came Dec. 6 against Marshall. SU shot a middling 41.5 percent from the field and relied on its defense, which forced 19 turnovers, including 12 steals, and blocked 10 shots, to win the game. Seven of those steals keyed a 20-6 run that allowed the Orange to turn an 11-8 game with 12:39 left in the first half to a 28-12 game seven minutes later.

The team that beats the 2011-2012 Orange will need to prevent these game-changing swings of momentum. NC State does not fit the bill. The Wolfpack ranks 122nd in turnovers per possession (19.2 percent) and 226nd in opponent steals per possession (10.2 percent). Even in the RBC Center, NC State will not beat Syracuse taking care of the ball like that.

A good team that manages to limit its turnovers will still struggle to score against the long Syracuse zone that has a capable back-up at every position. As former No. 1 teams Kentucky and North Carolina can attest, even the best teams can go down to an underdog that gets hot from behind the 3-point arc. Despite the reputation of the zone as being vulnerable to 3s, Syracuse has limited its opponents this year to shooting 29.9 percent from distance.

The team that beats the Orange will need to get hot from far enough outside to shoot over the SU guards’ long arms. This is what Florida and Marshall did in the second halves of their contests with Syracuse, but it must be maintained through 40 minutes. Again, NC State does not seem capable of what it takes to top the Orange. The Wolfpack shoots just 33.6 percent from downtown (178th in the nation).

Finally, the team that beats Syracuse will need to control the pace. Few teams in the country will be able to run with the Orange in transition. SU’s deep bench allows coach Boeheim to speed up the tempo with an effective press when needed, and the Orange’s athletic forwards and big guards are difficult to stop on a fast break.

Controlling pace starts with limiting turnovers that lead to fast breaks, but it also requires the discipline to slow the game down and keep the score low. Teams that do this effectively will have few possessions per game while maintaining a high offensive efficiency. NC State has been fairly efficient, scoring 1.072 points per possession (43rd nationally), but it is not a team that slows the pace of the game down (71 possessions per game ranks the Wolfpack 110th in the nation).

So if NC State seemingly does not have what it takes to knock off the Orange in its first true road game of the season, which team might hand SU its first loss? While Marquette or Pittsburgh would be safe bets, Tulane might be the first team Syracuse should worry about.

The Green Wave is currently 11-1, although that should be taken with a grain of salt since it has played the easiest schedule of any team in the country (345th out of 345, according to the KenPom). Nonetheless, Tulane should not be overlooked. It has size, experience, and strength in the facets of the game that give the Orange trouble.

Tulane takes care of the ball. Just 17.3 percent of its possessions result in turnovers, good for 45th nationally. The Green Wave is a decent 3-point shooting team at 36.3 percent. Moreover, the team likes to slow the game down, averaging just 67.7 possessions per game while scoring .96 points per possession. Finally, Tulane will limit SU’s second-chance points, as it ranks third nationally with a 19.5 opponent rebounding percentage.

Will Tulane beat Syracuse? I wouldn’t bet on it. But the Green Wave may have a better shot than NC State at knocking the Orange from No. 1.

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Jeff Irvine

About Jeff Irvine

Jeff has covered Massachusetts Minutemen basketball for The Maroon and White and The Daily Hampshire Gazette. He has also written for The Daily Orange. Jeff is an Amherst, Massachusetts native, and graduated from Syracuse University in 2006. Follow him on Twitter @jeffreyirvine.