Virginia Tech Looks To Get Back On Track Against Syracuse

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Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech
Buzz Williams and the Hokies are looking to get back on track against Syracuse. (Ivan Morozov)

Date: Tuesday, January 10
Time: 7pm
TV: ESPNU

Virginia Tech (12-3, 1-2) welcomes the 10-6 (2-1) Syracuse Orange into Cassell Coliseum for a big ACC showdown on Tuesday night. The Hokies started hot with a win over Duke, but dropped two straight games to NC State and Florida State on the road. Meanwhile, Syracuse was defeated handily by Boston College on the road in their ACC opener, but followed that up with home victories over Miami and Pitt.

Syracuse was having a rough season before the last couple of games. They were defeated in non-conference play by South Carolina, Wisconsin, UConn, Georgetown and St. John’s. In that last game against the Red Storm, the Orange were beaten 93-60, and St. John’s is only an 8-10 team. Then conference play started, and the Boston College Eagles hammered the vaunted 2-3 matchup zone 96-81. Remember, BC did not win a single ACC game last season. Things were looking really bad for Jim Boeheim’s group.

However, the Orange rallied with home victories over Miami (70-55) and Pitt (77-66). The Syracuse defense suddenly started playing much better. Why? Possibly because Jim Boeheim shortened his bench and started essentially using a five-man rotation, with a sixth player getting just a few minutes off the bench. Take a look at the minutes played from the Syracuse loss to St. John’s…

John Gillon (6-0, 178, r-Sr.): 30 minutes
Frank Howard (6-5, 205, So.): 15 minutes
Andrew White III (6-7, 210, r-Sr.): 37 minutes
Tyler Lydon (6-9, 223, So.): 38 minutes
DaJuan Coleman (6-9, 258, r-Sr.): 22 minutes
Taurean Thompson (6-10, 225, Fr.): 19 minutes
Tyus Battle (6-6, 205, Fr.): 22 minutes
Tyler Roberson (6-8, 226, Sr.): 7 minutes

Boeheim played eight players in that game (not counting the five guys who played two minutes each at the end of the blowout). Now compare that to his rotation in the win against Miami…

John Gillon: 39 minutes
Tyus Battle: 40 minutes
Andrew White III: 40 minutes
Tyler Lydon: 39 minutes
Tyler Roberson: 35 minutes
Taurean Thompson: 5 minutes

That’s a huge change. In the process, he’s benched senior DaJuan Coleman and taken away Frank Howard’s minutes, but the changes have made Syracuse a better defensive team. All of a sudden, they’ve been able to stop people.

Both of those wins came at home. Can their good play extend to a road game in Cassell Coliseum? The Orange have not won a game outside the Carrier Dome all season. Let’s go over their road and neutral site games throughout the course of the year…

South Carolina (Barclays Center, Brooklyn): 64-50 L
Wisconsin (Road game): 77-60 L
UConn (Madison Square Garden): 52-50 L
Boston College (Road Game): 96-81 L

The Orange have not only lost all four games outside the Carrier Dome, they’ve gotten hammered in three of them. Meanwhile, the Hokies are unbeaten at home (9-0) and have not dropped a game in Cassell Coliseum since they faced Louisville last January 27. Since then, five consecutive ACC teams have fallen in Blacksburg, including #5 Duke and #7 Miami, not to mention good Pitt and Florida State teams. Both of those ranked teams fell by double digits, as did Florida State, and the Hokies are on a 14-game winning streak in Cassell. From that standpoint, the Hokies have the advantage.

Bibbs: Hero Against Syracuse

Justin Bibbs has played three games against Syracuse in his career, and he was dominant in each.

Freshman #1: 22 points, 11 rebounds
Freshman #2: 19 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists
Sophomore: 16 points, 11 rebounds

For a guy who has never been a particularly good rebounder, he has crushed the Orange on the glass. He also shot 40% from three-point range in those three contests.

Now would be a good time for Bibbs to get back on track. Take a look at his last five games…

Charleston Southern: 0 points
UMBC: 2 points
Duke: 18 points
NC State: 3 points
FSU: 4 points

The last time I mentioned him in a game preview as being a guy who needed a big game, he came through against Duke. Can he have another big game against the Orange?

Relying on Transfers

Jim Boeheim’s team features a pair of transfers who are each on their third different school. Point guard John Gillon has played for Arkansas-Little Rock and Colorado State. He’s averaging 9.5 points, and he leads the team with 81 assists. Gillon is a capable three-point shooter, knocking down 40.3% of his outside jumpers.

Andrew White III is a Richmond native who has spent time at Kansas and Nebraska before settling in at Syracuse for his final season of eligibility. He leads the team in scoring, averaging 16.1 points per game. Like most other players for the Orange, he’s a good outside shooter at 40.2%. As a team, Syracuse is shooting 39.9% from three-point range.

The presence of White and Gillon as two players in what has become basically a 5-man rotation shows that Jim Boeheim has not done an effective recruiting job in recent seasons. They simply don’t have the talent or depth that they once had, and Boeheim knew it, so he went out and got a couple of one-year rentals.

All that being said, Syracuse was a bubble team last year and struggled through stretches of the regular season. Once the postseason began, they advanced all the way to the Final Four as a 10 seed. Despite their struggles this year, this is a team that will likely get better as the season goes along. Four of their five (or six) players in the rotation are either freshmen or graduate transfers, which means those guys haven’t had very much time together on the court. They’ll get better as a team as all those players continue to gel with each other. The Hokies just hope that doesn’t start tonight in Cassell.

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