Which Team Has the Edge in Syracuse-Arizona State?

Which Team Has the Edge in Syracuse-Arizona State? article feature image
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© Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday is almost here. We just need to get through one more day of meaningless NIT, CBI and CIT action, in addition to the two final First Four games in Dayton:

  • N.C. Central vs. Texas Southern -5.5 (6:40 p.m. ET on TRUtv)
  • Syracuse vs. Arizona State -1.5 (9:10 p.m. ET on TRUtv)

I’ll spare rehashing the myriad reasons why Syracuse didn’t deserve an NCAA Tournament bid. However, that should certainly provide the Orange with bulletin board material, and we’ve routinely seen the perceived “should be in the NIT” team win in Dayton. I’ll also spare rehashing the egregious decision by the committee to pit the two HBCU participants against each other in the First Four for the first time ever. Let’s just get straight to the matchups in what should actually be two fairly interesting schematic battles.

Follow me on twitter at @jorcubsdan for in-game commentary, injury updates, and second-half recommendations. 

North Carolina Central vs. Texas Southern -5.5 | O/U: 146.5

6:40 p.m. ET on TruTV

First, both NCC coach LeVelle Moton and TSU coach Mike Davis are excellent. This marks Davis’ eighth tournament appearance and the third for Moton. The two are also very good friends and know each other’s tendencies on the court.

Offensively, Texas Southern is playing at an incredibly high level. The Tigers are riding a seven-game win streak in which they’ve scored 1.27 points per possession. After a slew of injuries and suspensions, Davis finally has his full roster in place.

TSU dominated the SWAC down the stretch thanks to 5-foot-7 pure scoring guard Trae Jefferson, who is nearly impossible to stay in front of off the dribble. Teams also must respect his jump shot, as he hits 3s at nearly a 40% clip. He is even more lethal when paired with slashing wing Donte Clark and the sharpshooting Derrick Bruce. With the speedy Jefferson at the helm, this is the most transition-reliant team Davis has ever coached. In fact, it’s his only team to average more than 70 possessions per game.

To combat TSU’s rim-attacking mindset and speed off the dribble, opposing defenses have thrown a lot of zone at the Tigers, which NCCU will likely do as well. Moton has used a morphing 2-3 matchup zone for long stretches this season. It was particularly effective in the MEAC Tournament against a slew of transition-reliant but suspect-shooting teams. Despite seeing a lot of zone this year, the Tigers have continued to struggle with their zone offense.

While the Eagles’ zone might stymie Jefferson and company, I’m not sure how effective the NCCU offense will be in this matchup. While TSU relies on its backcourt, the Eagles focus their offense around true post Raasean Davis. However, TSU has 7-foot-2 shot swatter Trayvon Reed lurking at the rim. When Reed sits or gets in foul trouble, Davis will typically go zone, which will be problematic for a young NCC backcourt that struggles from the perimeter. NCC does mitigate that poor shooting with ferocious offensive rebounding. Second-chance points could be a means for offense tonight, especially since the Tigers have struggled on the glass.

Ultimately, Moton can copy and paste the game plan he used during NCC’s MEAC title run. Texas Southern plays almost exactly the same rim-attacking, transition-heavy offensive game that Hampton and Morgan State play. NCC managed to keep both games (and all four of its MEAC tourney games) under 70 possessions. If NCC can again grind this game to a halt, TSU will have to run its poor zone offense, which will give the Eagles a good chance to pull off the small upset.

THE PICK: North Carolina Central +5.5


Syracuse vs. Arizona State -1.5 | O/U: 143.5

9:10 p.m. ET on TruTV

Not only can the Orange play the disrespect card, but they also have a favorable matchup. Arizona State simply isn’t a good zone offense. Frankly, ASU can’t run its offense against zones, which is why opposing defenses have actually zoned the Sun Devils at the ninth-highest rate in the country. (And no team in the country zones more than Jim Boeheim.)

Opposing teams almost zoned ASU out of the NCAA Tournament because it is incredibly reliant on dribble penetration, either via ball screen or simple isolation. Between guards Tra Holder (pictured above), Shannon Evans and Remy Martin, ASU has three ballhandlers who can penetrate at the point of attack in pick-and-roll. Post option Romello White also draws frequent contact in the paint. Subsequently, the Sun Devils get to the charity stripe at the 15th-highest rate nationally. With a guard-heavy lineup, Bobby Hurley also pushes the pace and loves to attack in transition. ASU plays at the 36th-fastest pace in the country, scoring 1.18 points per transition possession. That grades out in the 96th percentile nationally, per Synergy. While all of the above made ASU the 17th-most efficient offense in the country, almost none of it will matter against the Syracuse 2-3 zone.

Boeheim’s zone is always fantastic because of the length at every position. Naturally, the 2-3 zone will prevent ASU from running its pick-and-roll offense. Breaking the zone down via iso also isn’t an option. That severely limits Arizona State’s offense. To make matters worse, it’s almost impossible to score on the Orange in transition, as Boeheim always places a high value on getting back defensively to set up the zone. Syracuse played in a staggering seven games that didn’t even reach 60 possessions. In comparison, Arizona State only played in seven games that didn’t reach at least 70 possessions. (Not one of those seven dipped below 65 possessions.) The pace battle will most likely decide the outcome of this game, and that’s a battle the Orange rarely lose.

On the other side of the ball, the Syracuse offense just isn’t very good. In fact, it’s downright miserable. Syracuse ranks 129th in offensive efficiency rating, per KenPom. That is the lowest rating of any power conference team to make the NCAA Tournament since Colorado in 2011-12. (The Buffs wouldn’t have made the field had they not won the Pac 12 Tournament that year.) Only 11 teams in the entire field have a less efficient offense than the Orange.

Schematically, the Syracuse offense is actually incredibly similar to ASU in that it relies heavily on iso penetration from the long backcourt of Tyus Battle and Frank Howard, in addition to Oshae Brissett’s ability to draw contact. While ASU doesn’t have a particularly strong defense, it does grade out in the 86th percentile nationally guarding in isolation, per Synergy. Just don’t ask the ASU frontcourt to guard in pick-and-roll. ASU’s biggest issue defensively will likely lie with its inability to grab misses. The Sun Devils are an extremely poor defensive rebounding team. That spells trouble against a Cuse team that grabs its misses at the 12th-highest rate in the country.

Ultimately, I will be surprised if this game is played above 65 possessions. That means ASU will have to execute in zone offense in the half court for the vast majority of the game. The Sun Devils have proven time and time again that they simply can’t do that efficiently.

THE PICK: Syracuse +1.5

Editor’s note: The opinion on these games is from the individual writer and is based on his research, analysis and perspective. It is independent of, and may not always match with, the algorithm-driven Best Bets from Sports Insights.

Arizona State guard Tra Holder pictured above; photo credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

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