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Louisville-Syracuse preview: Cards look to snap skid against desperate Orange

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It’s a monumentally important game for both teams Wednesday night inside the KFC Yum Center.

Louisville v Syracuse Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

Louisville Cardinals (21-5, 12-3) vs. Syracuse Orange (14-11, 7-7)

Game Time: 7:01 p.m.

Location: KFC Yum Center: Louisville, Ky.

Television: ESPN

Announcers: Dan Shulman (play-by-play) and Dick Vitale (analyst)

Favorite: Louisville by 9.5

Officials: Roger Ayers, Brent Hampton, Ron Groover

Series: Louisville leads, 18-10

Last Meeting: Syracuse won 69-49 on Feb. 20, 2019 in Syracuse

Series History:

Probable Starting Lineups:

Statistics:

Relevant Videos:

About Syracuse:

Of the handful of ACC teams that could reasonably describe themselves as being on the bubble, Syracuse’s situation seems to be the most urgent. The Orange are 14-11 overall and while they’ve come tantalizingly close to notching a few major wins, they’re just 3-5 in Quadrant 1 opportunities and a troubling 1-6 in Q2 games.

Syracuse has lost four of its last five games, but those five losses have come by a combined 18 points, and have more times than not been situations where the Orange have been in control for most of the game before unraveling late. The most recent example of this might be the most painful for ‘Cuse fans. The Orange led No. 8 Florida State 68-64 with 2:59 to plat before being outscored 16-9 by the Seminoles over the game’s final three minutes.

The vaunted Syracuse 2-3 zone hasn’t been quite as effective this season as it has been in most years under Jim Boeheim. The Orange rank 135th in adjusted defensive efficiency, a category where they’ve been ranked in the top 30 in nine of the last 10 years. If that ranking holds until the end of the season, this will be the worst defensive Syracuse team of the Ken Pom era.

‘Cuse still forces their opponents to use a ton of clock and still forces them to take a bunch of challenged threes, but their major issue this season has been limiting second chance opportunities. The Orange allow an offensive rebound on 32.4 percent of their defensive possessions, putting them 326th nationally in that category. That’s a stat that should make Dwayne Sutton and company’s eyes light up.

Jordan Nwora’s recent slump has allowed Syracuse’s Elijah Hughes to take over as the ACC’s leading scorer. The 6’6 junior forward is averaging 18.9 points per game, and has hit double figures in all but one of the Orange’s 25 games this season. Hughes is a 35.2 percent three-point shooter who is pretty consistently around that mark. It’s rare for him to have a night where he absolutely goes off from the outside, and equally rare for him to put up a donut from deep. He’s gotten better at being able to create his own shot off the bounce this season, but he’s still not going to wow anyone with his quickness or athleticism. As it has been in years past, shot selection remains Hughes’ biggest area of concern.

The same can be said for electric freshman guard Joe Girard, aka Baby Jimmer. Girard played at the same high school in New York (Glens Falls High School) as college basketball legend Jimmer Fredette, and shattered the New York state high school scoring record by finishing his career with 4,329 points. That also ranks as the ninth-highest career scoring total ever in the history of United States high school basketball.

Girard comes into Wednesday night’s game red hot after scoring 52 points over Syracuse’s last two games. He is an absolutely lethal threat from beyond the arc who is likely to turn one make into five in a row. He’s also a capable ballhandler and a really good passer, but decision-making, especially at the end of games, has been his fatal flaw thus far. Girard, who didn’t have a reputation for being a particularly stellar defender coming out of high school, doesn’t possess the size that Boeheim likes to have at the top of his 2-3 zone. This has led to not just more clean looks from the outside for opponents, but more penetration against the Syracuse defense from the top this season than we’ve seen in a lot of years past. This is a weakness that both David Johnson and Darius Perry should be able to exploit.

Syracuse’s other lethal outside threat is the coach’s son, 6’6 sophomore guard Buddy Boeheim. Put simply, Boeheim is a catch and shoot three-point specialist. He takes a bunch, he makes a bunch, that’s what he does. After scoring in double figures in 16 consecutive games, Boeheim was held scoreless by Florida State on Saturday. The Seminoles’ size, strength and pressure forced Boeheim into three turnovers and a dreadful 0-for-7 shooting performance. Like Jordan Nwora, Boeheim isn’t shy about driving the basketball when the outside shot is taken away, but he’s much less effective when that becomes his game. Every defender on Boehim Wednesday night should have the goal of making him dribble at least twice on every catch.

One of the ACC’s most improved players, 6’10 junior Marek Dolezaj is Syracuse’s most reliable inside presence. Dolezaj is averaging career-bests almost across the board, most notably in the categories of points (10.4 ppg) and rebounds (6.8 rpg). He’s a crafty scorer inside and a great passer for someone who is 6’10, but his lack of strength (185 pounds) plays a large role in Syracuse’s rebounding struggles. He’s a capable shot blocker, but doesn’t have much of an answer for more physical big men when opposing teams are able to get the ball on the block against the Orange zone.

The one thing that Syracuse does have going for it defensively, is their ability to create transition opportunities thanks to their high steal and block rates. It’s more of a gambling zone than it has been in years past, and Louisville has to take advantage of the gaps that are created as a result. This is a game where U of L has to move the ball quickly and make sharp and accurate decisions when they’re afforded some space. It’s something they weren’t ever able to do in last year’s gross 69-49 loss at the Carrier Dome.

Notable:

—Louisville is 18-0 when leading at halftime this season, and 3-5 when trailing at the break.

—Louisville enters Wednesday night ranked 10th in the NCAA’s NET Rankings. Syracuse is No. 64.

—Louisville is 12th in the nation in three-point field goal percentage (38.3 percent), but has made just 9-of-51 threes over its last two games.

—Syracuse has lost four of its last five games, but those five losses have come by a combined 18 points.

—Syracuse is 1-3 against ranked opponents this season, with that one win coming on the road against then-No. 18 Virginia on Jan. 11.

—Louisville is 21-5 through 26 games for the first time since the 2014-15 season.

—Louisville’s 12-3 ACC start is its best in its six years in the conference and its best in any league since the Cardinals won the 2014 American Athletic Conference title with a 15-3 record.

—Syracuse’s Elijah Hughes (18.9 ppg) and Louisville’s Jordan Nwora (18.2 ppg) enter Wednesday night as the No. 1 and No. 2 leading scorers in the ACC.

—Buddy Boeheim is No. 8 nationally in made three-pointers per game (3.36).

—Dwayne Sutton is five rebounds away from reaching 600 for his college career.

—Louisville is looking to avoid just its second ever three-game losing streak to Syracuse. The Orange swept the season series with with the Cards in 2012, and then won the first of three meetings in 2013.

—Louisville is 9-4 all-time in home games against Syracuse.

—Louisville is 14-1 at home this season and 6-1 in ACC home games.

—Syracuse is 4-2 in ACC road games this season, but has lost two straight.

—Louisville has made as many as nine three-pointers in a game on 15 occasions this season, including in five of its last seven games. It has failed to hit that mark in its last two contests.

—Louisville is 15-1 this season when holding opponents to 68 points or fewer, and 6-4 on the year when teams score more than 68.

—Louisville has won 161 consecutive games when holding an opponent under 50 points.

—Louisville has won 153 consecutive games when scoring at least 85 points in regulation.

—Louisville is one of just four schools which have won 20 or more games on the court in each of the last 19 seasons. Gonzaga, Duke and Kansas are the others.

Ken Pomeroy Prediction: Louisville 78, Syracuse 68