There are a lot of good match-ups in this year's Big Ten/ACC Challenge, but perhaps none is more anticipated than the Indiana vs. Syracuse game on Tuesday night. Not only are the two historic programs coming off exciting campaigns, but both are retooled with new pieces that should keep the momentum going into 2014.
Add to the hype that the Orange just beat the Hoosiers in the East Region Semifinal of the NCAA Tournament last March, and Tuesday night is must-see TV for college basketball fans. In last season's game, Syracuse's 2-3 zone was at its finest, limiting Indiana to 34-percent shooting while forcing 17 turnovers. Sophomore Cody Zeller was held to just 10 points on 3-for-10 shooting while Orange point guard Michael Carter-Williams poured in 24 points to lead his team to a 61-50 win.
One of the most surprising parts of that game was the way the Syracuse defense held down Indiana's shooting. The Hoosiers were one of the best shooting teams in the nation last season from both near and far, and normally a zone defense wouldn't do much to deter that. However, the Orange 2-3 has always been different. Head coach Jim Boeheim makes sure his guards are aggressive in defending the three-pointer, and that's why they allowed opponents to shoot just 28 percent from beyond the arc in 2013. In a battle of three-point efficiency versus three-point defense, it was the defense that won.
That might not be the case this time around. The Orange are fresh off of a Maui Invitational championship, but it wasn't due to stellar field goal defense. Rather, Syracuse is allowing opponents to shoot 38 percent from three-point range. That's four percent higher than the NCAA Division I average. The reason for that is probably that last season's perimeter defenders Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche have both moved on and have been replaced by the inexperienced Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney.
Both Ennis and Cooney are having success on the offensive side of the floor -- Ennis is averaging 4.7 assists per game as a freshman while adding 11.7 points per game while Cooney is scoring 14.3 per game on the strength of 46-percent three-point shooting -- but the tandem hasn't intimidated shooters yet in the way of the old guards.
Does this mean we're in for a barn-burning points bonanza to contrast last season's defensive struggle? Not necessarily. Just as the Orange haven't defended the three-point shot like they did in 2013, Indiana isn't shooting it quite as well. The team lost a ton of shooting with the departures of Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford, and Jordan Hulls, and there is not enough talent left to pick up the slack.
Sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell is shooting 39 percent from beyond the arc, but he is rightfully more concerned with driving into the lane and setting up his teammates than being a spot-up shooter. The veteran Will Sheehey has stepped up his game to help make up for IU's heavy losses, but he's just been 5-for-22 on three-pointers.
That doesn't mean that the Hoosiers can't score, though. Although they will be relying on their defense a lot more than they did last season, Ferrell is growing into a terrific creator who can dish to teammates in addition to setting up his own shot. The bigger factor in this game, though, should be freshman Noah Vonleh, who is taking the college basketball world by storm thanks to his insane rebounding ability. He averages 10.4 boards per game even though he's only been on the floor for 21.3 minutes per contest.
Thanks to Vonleh's efforts, Indiana grabs a ridiculous 46 percent of available offensive rebounds, which is third in the nation. Basically every time the Hoosiers miss a shot (and they've missed several), it's a coin flip to decide if they get the ball back. The one real weakness in Syracuse's zone is that they are never a great defensive rebounding team. How the Orange deal with a monster like Vonleh will go a long way to deciding the game's outcome.
Of course, the Orange have talented forwards of their own. Senior C.J. Fair has been on the court for nearly every minute of Syracuse's seven games and is averaging 18 points and 5.9 rebounds. The development of his mid-range game has molded Fair from a role player into one of the top players in the ACC.
Keeping Vonleh away from Fair will be the job of sophomore Jerami Grant. He's Syracuse's top rebounder and it should be fun to watching him battle with Vonleh on the glass for an entire game. Although the Orange are soft on the defensive glass because of their zone, the talents of Grant and senior big man Rakeem Christmas make them almost as good as IU when it comes to grabbing their own misses.
So who wins? Indiana's defense and rebounding or Syracuse's defense and rebounding? I'm going to go with the Orange because they force a ton of turnovers with the zone and Ferrell is not experienced enough to master it yet. Plus, turnovers have been a big problem for the Hoosiers so far. If Vonleh goes crazy on the glass, Indiana has a chance, but the Orange will cause too many mistakes and they have more skilled scorers on the other end.
It should be a great game. Just don't be surprised if the score is 20-19 at halftime. Thanks to KenPom for the stats.