Orange Watch: ACC heavyweights tilt this week’s Syracuse basketball schedule

Jim Boeheim
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim coaches from the sidelines. Mandatory Photo Credit: Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports.

Item: Just as we wrote last month that the ACC gave the SU football team little leeway in this coming season’s opening month with back-to-back league games against stalwarts Florida State (home) and Clemson (away), sandwiched around a non-conference meeting with Connecticut, this week the Orange hoop team consecutively faces Blue Bloods; the No. 14/16 Tar Heels and No. 10/12 Blue Devils both fresh off tough-to-achieve road victories in the ACC.

It’s been quite a tradeoff since Syracuse swapped Georgetown, Connecticut and Villanova for the likes of Duke, North Carolina and Virginia for the 2013-14 season, the first in the ACC. It was a season that started with 25 straight wins including memorable ones over the Tar Heels and Blue Devils in the Dome, and the equally memorable Jim Boeheim ejection in a loss at Duke the first time playing at fabled Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Since then Carolina has taken all five games against the ‘Cuse, including the national semifinals at the 2016 Final Four, and three at the Smith Center where SU has never beaten Carolina, while Syracuse has gone a respectable 3-3 against the Blue Devils over that stretch including an “amazing” win at Cameron in 2016.

As the Orange (18-9, 7-7) gets ready for this year’s home stretch of four regular season games beginning by hosting UNC Wednesday night (7:00 p.m. ET / ESPN) and continuing with the road game at Duke Saturday (6:15 p.m. ET / ESPN), Boeheim is well aware that up first UNC presents matchup challenges.

“They’re big, for as long as I can remember, 40 years, they get a lot of big guys,” Boeheim said during Monday’s ACC coaches teleconference. “They’re very aggressive, physical on the boards. They usually have big guards that get to the basket, always been physical and aggressive.”

So while the Orange will have its hands full attacking the Tar Heels in a season that’s presented offensive challenges, it will be SU’s defensive play that needs to step up to neutralize UNC’s scoring opportunities.

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“Every team I’ve ever had has been shocked the first several minutes that they ever play against it (the SU 2-3 zone),” Carolina coach Roy Williams said on Monday’s teleconference. “They think they’re open and ‘oh my gosh’ they guy’s right in my face (they’re) playing zone. Then they trap you in the corner, so it’s just so many different things that you have to be prepared for.”

On Wednesday when SU meets North Carolina, Duke hosts Louisville, before facing SU. Boeheim trails the Blue Devils Mike Krzyzewski by 71 wins on the all-time victories list (disregarding what the NCAA proclaims), and they’re 4-4 against each other dating back to 1989, so Saturday is a tie-breaker.

“Jim and I and are families are as close as you can be,” Krzyzewski said Monday on the ACC call when asked about the relationship. “We shared almost 12 years (with) U.S. Basketball where a lot of great things happened. But one of the great things was how our families got to spend time with one another. They really became very, very close friends.”

“He’s as good as anybody that’s coached the game,” Coach K continued. “I may not be smart in some things but I was smart enough to ask him to be with me for 12 years. That benefited me and USA basketball tremendously.”

For now, Boeheim is only concerned about getting this team on course for a 2018 NCAA bid, and on Monday he did a little bit of politicking.

“I think we’ve got a good team, I think we’ve played well this year,” Boeheim summed up. “We have a much better strength of schedule than we had last year. We don’t really have any bad losses, and we’ve got more road games than we had last year. So I like our position, we’ve just got to keep playing, we’ve got some really, really tough games left and we’ll see what happens.”

It will likely take two wins out of the four left in the regular season, plus a first-ever ACC Tournament win to prevent a lot of nervousness at the ‘Melo Center come Selection Sunday.

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About Brad Bierman 848 Articles
Now in his sixth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.