Syracuse is currently 11.5-point underdogs to Duke. Ken Pomeroy’s algorithm gives the Orange a 19 percent chance of winning.
Despite winning five of its last six games en route to the Sweet Sixteen, SU will need a lot of things to go its way to get past the 2-seed Blue Devils. Here are five keys for an Orange victory.
1. Slow the pace
Syracuse ranks 345th out of 351 division one teams in tempo this season. It’s not always fun to watch, but, in combination with a stifling zone defense, it works.
SU has held the game to 60 possessions in each of its three NCAA wins thus far, which is three below the team’s season-long average and five fewer than the national average.
Slowing the game down will be paramount against a Duke team that ranks 3rd nationally in offensive efficiency. The Blue Devils have averaged two possessions per game fewer in losses than wins this season.
Syracuse has already demonstrated it can do this. The Orange held Duke to six possessions below its average when the teams met in Durham in February.
2. Tyus Battle and Frank Howard play complete games
This is meant in both the literally and figuratively.
Barring foul trouble, SU’s starting guards will in all likelihood be asked to play 40 minutes. Braedon Bayer stepped up and saved the game with his defense when Howard fouled out with 6 minutes remaining against Michigan State. But to beat Duke, Howard and Battle need to stay out of foul trouble and on the court.
Howard and Battle must also bring their A games in both halves. Too often this season, one or both of the starting guards has disappeared or appeared completely off his game for a half. This was the case for both Howard and Battle in the first half against the Spartans. To advance to the Elite Eight, the Orange will need a complete game from its backcourt.
3. Play efficient offense and get to the free throw line
Syracuse ranks 139th in the country in offensive efficiency this season — not great. But in its first meeting with Duke, the Orange was even worse. The Blue Devils held SU to just 68.5 points per 100 possessions — 39 points below the season average and the worst offensive performance of the season.
A big reason for the Orange’s struggles was its inability to get to the free throw line — only 6 attempts. SU was able to overcome 36 percent shooting, including only one 3-point make, to beat Michigan State by getting to the line 31 times. It will need to do the same to beat Duke.
4. Play similar defense to the first matchup with Duke
With Duke beating Syracuse by 16 points back in February, it’s easy to forget that Syracuse played great defense that game. The Orange held a team that averages 123 points per 100 possessions to just 93.4 — Duke’s worst offensive performance of the season.
This success was driven by SU holding the Blue Devils to just 2-18 from behind the arc. Duke averages better than 38 percent on 3s, so Syracuse is unlikely to duplicate this feat in Omaha.
Instead, it will have to maintain this level of defense by forcing Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter away from the basket and into lower percentage mid-range jumpers. These two future lottery picks feasted on SU with dunk after dunk in the first meeting.
SU has held its first three NCAA Tournament opponents to either their worst or second-worst offensive efficiency performance of the season, so the Orange is playing its best defense at the right time.
5. Utilize Marek Dolezaj to create movement on offense
Syracuse’s offense has looked best this season when it heavily involves Marek Dolezaj. The 6’9’’ Slovakian moves the ball quickly and has recently started to draw additional defensive attention as his floater and mid-range jumper have become efficient weapons during SU’s tournament run.
This is in sharp contrast to the one-on-one hero ball that the Orange’s offense often devolves to with the ball in a guard’s hands and the shot clock running down.
The first matchup with Duke proved that defense alone is not enough for Syracuse to win. The Orange held the Blue Devils to their worst offensive performance of the season and still would have lost if they played as well on offense as they did against Michigan State.
To get the additional offensive boost the Orange will need against Duke’s version of the 2-3 zone, the Orange need to get the ball to Dolezaj in the high post and allow him to find open cutters after drawing defenders.
Even if all these key factors play out in Syracuse’s favor, it still may not be enough to beat a talented Duke team. SU will also need a big game from Oshae Brissett. It will need its centers to rebound effectively and stay out of foul trouble. And it will need some bounces to go its way.
Syracuse has beaten Duke each of the last two seasons facing long odds, so perhaps it can can make it three in a row.