Game Preview: Syracuse

After falling at Duke on Monday night, Florida State has had time to recover and rest while preparing for this Saturday’s matchup against the Syracuse Orange. They will be looking to bounce back against a team that started off ACC play well before losing 3 of their last 4. Syracuse has an outside chance to squeeze their way into the tournament if they can start to string together some wins, but it’ll be hard depending on the availability of their top player.

Senior point guard Trent Forrest will be looking to become Florida State Basketball’s all time winningest player as FSU looks for their 21st win. He’s coming off of arguably his best game of the season with 18 points, 9 rebounds, 8 steals, 4 assists, and a block against Duke.

This game will be at Noon EST on ESPN2, live from a sold out Donald L Tucker Center.

Syracuse Breakdown 14-10 (7-6)

The Orange will likely have to win out if they want to make the tournament, but they’ve got a brutal stretch ahead of them: @ Florida State, @ Louisville, Georgia Tech, @ Pittsburgh, North Carolina, @ Boston College, @ Miami.

Realistically, if they can finish .500 in conference, that’d be about as good as they could hope for. Syracuse is a solid team, they beat who they’re supposed to beat and lose to who they’re supposed to lose to, but they’re also not setting the world on fire.

Even looking at the stats, they aren’t really special in any one area: 74.0 PPG, allowing 68.3 PPG, 43.6% from the floor, and 34.2% from 3 are all from 100th-200th nationally. Syracuse takes a lot of threes and doesn’t let teams shoot 2s at all, but if a team gets hot from 3, they’re very likely to be beaten.

This is also an extremely shallow team, as only 6 players receive double-digit minutes per game.

Elijah Hughes is leading the Orange in scoring with 18.6 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.2 SPG, and 1.0 BPG on a 49.1/35.9/81.0 shooting split. Almost 50% of his looks come in isolation or on spot-up opportunities. This is reminiscent of a player ‘Cuse had last year in Tyus Battle. Florida State tried to limit his chances by really shrinking the gaps, more than normal, to force Battle into becoming a distributor. He suffered a groin injury in warmups before their last game and only played a couple of minutes before sitting out the rest of the game.

Buddy Boeheim, son of coach Jim Boeheim, is having a huge season after averaging only 6.8 PPG as a freshman. This year, he is putting up 16.3 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 2.3 APG, and 1.0 SPG on a 40.9/40.0/69.7 shooting split. You’d much rather have Boeheim be a driver and ball-handler, as he is turning it over on 14.2% of possessions in isolations or as the pick and roll ball-hander.

3rd on the list is Joseph Girard III, who is averaging 12.6 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 3.5 APG, and 1.6 SPG on a 36.4/31.7/92.0 shooting split. His free throw shooting indicates he’s a much better shooter than his other percentages, so I wouldn’t leave him open. He is a quick guard who can create for himself off of the dribble, so I imagine ‘Cuse will want to try and switch him onto Malik Osborne, who has had trouble with quicker guards like Kihei Clark and Chris Lykes.

Their last scorer in double figures is one of their big men Marek Dolezaj, who is averaging 10.5 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.9 APG, and 1.2 SPG on a 50.3/16.7/72.1 shooting split. He can get in foul trouble quick given his 3.3 FPG and having fouled out in 7 games this season; his discipline will be tested against a Florida State team that loves to get inside.

They only have two more guys you’ll consistently see: Bourima Sidibe, another starting big man who is also a solid rebounder who fouls a lot, and Quincy Guerrier, a backup forward who can score really well inside the arc.

Because Hughes is a game-time decision against Florida State, some other guys may be forced into action like Jesse Edwards (backup center) and Brycen Goodine.

Syracuse Offense

This is a team that runs a lot of isolations, whether it be to create for the ball-handler or to kick out to someone for a spot-up. 25% of their shots come in spot-up situations and another 10% comes off of isolation. I don’t expect them to get out in transition much with their lack of depth in this game, assuming Hughes is out, but they’re very efficient in transition at 54.6%.

Joseph Girard had a huge game against NC State with Hughes on the bench, so let’s see what got him going.

Really, it was just NC State not containing off of the dribble early in possessions. Girard had little resistance getting down the floor, and NC State’s guards aren’t big enough to slow him down. If FSU really shrinks the gaps like I expect them to, he won’t have many of these looks throughout the game.

Once Girard got hot, he was just hitting everything.

I wouldn’t be surprised if FSU’s defensive gameplan was focused more towards getting the ball out of Girard’s hands than Buddy Boeheim’s. If the ‘Noles can force Girard out of the picture while making Boeheim a playmaker and distributor, they should have no problems in this game.

This is also a team that is elite at scoring on baseline out of bounds (BLOB) plays, as they are scoring 1.031 points per possession in this situation, and a lot of it comes off of one action.

They love getting Boeheim a handoff in the corner for him to rise up. If he can’t get this quick shot off, he’ll swing it around to someone else that’s usually open or to the rolling big man that gave him the hand-off.

Shutting down that one action can lead to a much easier day defensively for Florida State, and given how they play their BLOB defense, this should be an easy enough task.

Syracuse Defense

Everyone knows ‘Cuse is famous for their 2-3 zone. Jim Boeheim said before the season they’d be running more man-to-man this season, but given the lack of depth, he’s had to still play zone just as much: 94.6% of possessions. A few of those “man-to-man” defensive sequences aren’t really man-to-man, the play was just so fast, there’s nothing else to quantify it as.

They still really want to run this lifted 2-3, where the ball is immediately trapped if it gets to the corner.

Above is an example of what Cuse wants to do: let the ball get to the corner and immediately trap. If a team can quickly swing the ball while the defense is still shifting, they can catch ‘Cuse off balance. Here, the Orange make their rotations perfectly, so even though the ball swings inside, someone is already waiting to take a charge.

If the ball gets inside to the high post, usually the big man steps up to take him, while the wings crash the post, which can cause mismatches and lapses defensively.

Here, NC State was able to make Syracuse scramble all over the floor, and usually the more chaotic the game is, the better it plays for Florida State.

A lot of teams like to run zone offenses that implement someone in the high post or some sort of major lob threat (Christ Koumadje had one of his best games against Syracuse). We’ll talk about this more later, but Syracuse makes it really hard to get into the paint and finish at the rim, as a lot of these guys have great wingspans. Fighting through steal attempts and contact is going to be key for Florida State.

Florida State Breakdown 20-4 (10-3)

In the past, Florida State has had a lot of great zone busters. Braian Angola-Rodas and Terance Mann were perfect in the high post, as they could score from the mid-range while also being great lob passers if the big in the middle stepped up. They’ve also had great lob threats in Christ Koumadje and Mfiondu Kabengele to rise up if the defensive big stepped up.

The ‘Noles don’t really have those types of options this year. Patrick Williams and Devin Vassell are phenomenal scorers from the mid-range, but they’d both prefer to shoot from that spot instead of pass. Trent Forrest is a phenomenal passer, but he’s not an elite mid-range scorer and you lose great ball handling up top. With no major lob threat though, they may ask Williams and Vassell to sit in that middle and score. If Dominik Olejniczak, Balsa Koprivica, and to a lesser extent Malik Osborne can become vertical threats in this game, they have a great chance of winning this game.

Below are a few clips from the last few seasons when Angola and Mann would pick apart the zone from the middle; this is what FSU wants to do against the zone.

Watching Mann and Angola move from side-to-side as they try and look for a crease in the defense, then turn and make a quick reactionary play is amazing to watch. I could’ve thrown in 20 or 30 plays of these two carving Syracuse up, but we’ve only got so much time.

One player I wouldn’t be surprised to see in that high post is RaiQuan Gray, as he’s a solid passer and a big enough body to be able to hold off defenders if they swarm him. He’s also big enough to set screens from that high post.

If they’re not getting the ball in the high post, they try to shift the defense before swinging back around and trying to set a screen on the defensive guards up top.

This play resulted in a foul, but the goal is to try and get Trent Forrest going downhill so he can either attack the basket or read and make the right pass if help comes.

Injury Report

Florida State

No new injuries to report from FSU.


Elijah Hughes is questionable with a strained groin injury, and is officially a game-time decision. It would be a huge blow to ‘Cuse if he couldn’t play, but he did make the trip.

Jalen Carey is out for the season with a thumb injury.

Robert Braswell is out for the season with a leg injury.

Projected Starting Lineups

Florida State

G: Trent Forrest

G: MJ Walker

G: Devin Vassell

F: RaiQuan Gray

F: Malik Osborne


G: Joseph Girard III

G: Buddy Boeheim

F: Elijah Hughes (Quincy Guerrier would get the nod if Hughes can’t go)

F: Marek Dolezaj

F: Bourama Sidibe

Keys to the Game

Shoot the Lights Out

Shooting the lights out is a little unnecessary, but Florida State absolutely will have to shoot well from distance to open up the floor for everyone else. The ‘Noles will be looking to bounce back and show they aren’t the team that went 3/18 from behind the arc against Duke, and I will be looking for them to be around the 40% mark from 3 against ‘Cuse. Guys like Wyatt Wilkes, Anthony Polite, Devin Vassell, MJ Walker, and Patrick Williams should all get clean looks from behind the arc if the ball movement is crisp.

Run, Forrest, Run

Not just Trent Forrest in particular, but any time FSU is up against a really short rotation, they should be all gas, no brakes trying to wear out their opponent. Depending on the availability of Hughes, the Orange’s rotation may be shorter than normal. Get out in transition as much as you can, and force ‘Cuse to use the end of their bench. This doesn’t just count for the offense, force Syracuse to speed their offense up too. As they speed up, they’re more likely to commit silly turnovers.

Find Your Middle Man

Finding that person that can control the high post is key for Leonard Hamilton’s zone offense. I imagine Florida State will test out a lot of players in this role: Vassell, Williams, Gray, RayQuan Evans, Forrest, Anthony Polite, Malik Osborne… it might be two or three guys consistently getting in there, but whoever runs it well needs to stay in the middle. A great high post threat is going to be the difference in this game.


Florida State opened as 9-point favorites over Syracuse, and if Elijah Hughes isn’t playing, that’s a great number for FSU. Even if Hughes does go, he’s certainly not going to be 100%. ‘Cuse has been banged up all season, and they come into Tallahassee as banged up as they’ve ever been. The over/under was set at 147, which I’m not sure which way to lean here, probably under, if I were to put money on it.

The game will probably start slow for the ‘Noles, as they always seem to start sluggish in noon games. If Hughes is out, I absolutely expect FSU to win by double digits, as ‘Cuse wouldn’t have enough depth to keep up with Florida State’s steady rotation of quality players. If Hughes plays and is at 80-90%, it’s probably going to be in the 7-to-9 point range. I’ll go out on a limb and say he’s not cleared to go, FSU finds some hot shooting, and wins 81-66.

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