Syracuse scouting report: Size, depth, efficiency pace undefeated Orange

Marquette’s reward for blowing a 17-point second half lead on the road to No. 9 Georgetown on Wednesday?

A trip to the Carrier Dome to take on No. 1 Syracuse, of course.

The Golden Eagles will face their toughest test to date when they duel Kris Joseph, Dion Waiters and the undefeated Syracuse Orange. Jim Boeheim’s group has come out of the Big East gates running, defeating Seton Hall, DePaul and Providence by an average of over 19 points.

Here’s a look at what Buzz Williams and Marquette have in front of them as they look to pull off the upset against the team it beat twice last year, including once in the NCAA Tournament:

How deep is the top-ranked team in the nation when arguably its best player doesn’t even start? Just ask sophomore Dion Waiters, who has blossomed into  the Orange’s offensive spark off the bench after a turbulent freshman year in which he almost transferred. The Orange’s deep back court means Waiters, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard, plays 22 minutes per game, but he makes the most of those minutes. He is second on the team in scoring, third in assists, and is shooting a remarkable 53.7 percent from the field. Even more impressive? Waiters is averaging a steal every 5.7 opponent’s possessions, good for fourth best in all of college basketball. Waiters does a little bit of everything and will be a tough handle for the Golden Eagles when he subs into the game.

Another sophomore enjoying a breakout season is center Fab Melo, who has

Fab Melo won't be giving up any easy looks in the paint on Saturday. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

transformed into one of the nation’s best interior defenders. The 7-footer put in time over the summer to trim down and work on his game, and it has shown through 15 games. He is averaging 5.3 rebounds and 3.1 blocks in just under 23 minutes per game, and his block percentage (15.6 percent) is second in the country. He has also been a terror on the offensive glass, ranking in the top 100 in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. Melo has been outstanding replacing the graduated Rick Jackson in the starting lineup.

If there’s one player who makes Syracuse go (and, realistically, there’s quite a few who do), it’s senior forward Kris Joseph. He leads the Orange with 13.9 points and has rounded out his game in his final year at Syracuse. He’s able to battle on the block, penetrate off the dribble and has improved his 3-point shooting. He’s been Syracuse’s rock and, much like Vanderbilt’s Jeffrey Taylor and Georgetown’s Hollis Thompson, will be a tough cover on both ends for Marquette at the “three” position.

It’s hard to argue, however, with the two players ahead of Waiters on in the back court, guards Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine. Triche, a 6-foot-4 guard, has been a staple of efficiency with percentages of 44/42/86 and is enjoying his best defensive season at Syracuse. His long frame and quick feet allow him to cover plenty of ground and when he gets going from beyond the arc, he’s scary good offensively. Jardine, on the other hand, is a different breed of player. The talent is undeniably there, as Jardine led the Big East in assists last year and is averaging 4.3 assists in 21.6 minutes per game this year. However, Jardine is guilty of careless passes and costly turnovers far too often.

Forwards C.J. Fair and James Southerland would start for the majority of Big East teams, but instead are simply threats off the bench for the stacked Orange. Fair is more of a spell inside for Melo and starting forward Rakeem Christmas, while the ultra-efficient, 6-foot-8 Southerland is more of an outside threat with size to cover the zone blocks. Both are  important pieces to Boeheim’s bench who are sure to get plenty of run Saturday against the undersized Golden Eagles.

Freshman forward Rakeem Christmas gets a bit of the 2010 Erik Williams treatment, starting for the Orange but averaging under 13 (usually lackluster) minutes.

Forwards Michael Carter-Williams and Baye Moussa Keita see spot duty most nights but shouldn’t factor too heavily into Saturday afternoon’s outcome.

Where they’re good

— The Orange stand as the third tallest team in the country and have used that size to become one of the nation’s best two-point shooting teams. Thanks to five rotation forwards all standing 6-foot-7 or taller, guards who are able to penetrate at will and one of the best transition offenses in the country, the Orange are shooting 55.5 percent from inside the arc. Considering Georgetown was 12-of-13 on 2-pointers in the second half of Wednesday night’s win over Marquette, the Golden Eagles are going to need all hands on deck inside come Saturday.

Scoop Jardine is prone to turnovers at times, but Syracuse takes care of the ball as good as anyone. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

— For as many mistakes as Jardine is prone to making, the Orange take care of the ball. Averaging just 10.9 turnovers per game (15th best in the nation), the Orange play to their strength and work the ball inside early and often. Marquette was able to get up on Georgetown by forcing 12 first half turnovers, but that won’t be the case Saturday. Instead, solid man-to-man defense and making the Orange work for their shots and then rebounding missed attempts will be necessary. If it sounds like a tall order, it should be. Syracuse is No. 1 in the country for a reason.

— On the other end, no team has been better at blocking shots and stealing the ball this year than Syracuse. They rank third in the nation in blocks per game (7.6) and first in steals (11.1). One of the reasons the Orange are so good in transition is because of the opportunities their defense creates. Waiters and Triche have led the way in the steals department while Melo has been a force in the paint, blocking over three shots per game.

— Syracuse’s starting five is one of the best in the nation, but maybe just as impressive is its bench rotation. Only one player  on the roster has averaged over 25 minutes per game and the likes of Waiters, Fair and Southerland off the bench to face opponent’s second lines makes the Orange one of the deepest teams in the nation. And it’s shown in the statistics.

Seven players average between 7.4 and 13.9 points, with five of those players shooting over 51 percent from the field. There is no defined scorer, though Dion Waiters and Brandon Triche use the most possessions, and no one seems to need the spotlight. The balanced attack has led to decreased turnovers, fewer bad shots and one of the most efficient offenses (3rd) and defenses (18th) in the country.

Where they can be beat

It’s hard to comprehend but Syracuse actually allows a worse offensive rebounding percentage to opponents than Marquette does. While it’s true that teams miss more shots and have more opportunities to grab offensive rebounds against Syracuse, its 37.3 percent rate in this area is 37th worst in the nation, according to Ken Pomeroy. Syracuse isn’t as good a defensive rebounding team as it should be, and this is somewhere Marquette can take advantage. Davante Gardner, Vander Blue and Jamil Wilson will be very important, in this sense. The Golden Eagles will have chances to sneak through Syracuse’s 2-3 zone when shots go up to grab offensive rebounds, but it’s just as important to get back in transition.

Three keys to the game

1. Paint touches in the middle of Syracuse’s zone

Paint touches are the key to assisted baskets and outside makes for Marquette, and the one area a 2-3 zone can be attacked is at the free throw line. Two years ago it was Lazar Hayward. Last year it was Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder. This year, Crowder and Jamil Wilson will need to get the ball in the middle of the zone, squared up and ready to shoot. From there, the zone will be forced to collapse and Marquette can run its offense. Hopefully the Golden Eagles can repeat their outside shooting from Wednesday night (8-of-18 against Georgetown).

2. Davante Gardner: repeat of Wednesday night

Marquette’s sophomore center-by-default is being asked to guard two of the nation’s biggest front courts this week, and he passed his first test with flying colors on Wednesday. Gardner locked down on Georgetown’s Henry Sims in the second half, making him work for every basket and limiting him to just five rebounds. Saturday will be tougher, as Gardner will be matched up on Melo inside. Points will be hard to come by for Gardner. But the true importance is on the defensive end. Syracuse’s offense is so efficient that, much like Wisconsin, every possession will count. Marquette’s front court limiting Melo, Fair and Joseph to their averages in points and rebounds is the only way the Golden Eagles will have a chance to come away with a win.

3. Limit turnovers

It sounds obvious, but taking care of the basketball both in finding good looks (to limit blocks) and not turning it over (limiting steals) will slow down Syracuse’s transition offense. Marquette had 11 turnovers in the second half of its loss to Georgetown that the Hoyas turned into 13 points. Syracuse won’t be so kind. Junior Cadougan can’t have another no-show and, when guards penetrate, they must make smart decisions.

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