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“Dixon has seen this zone before, these players haven’t”: A Q&A with Nunes Magician

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John Cassillo of the excellently titled “Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician” Syracuse SB Nation blog was kind enough to talk all things Orange ahead of their matchup with TCU tonight.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Four-Syracuse vs. Arizona State Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange have been here before - a lot. The TCU Horned Frogs? Not so much. So how much will experience matter in a game that pits one of the last four teams in with a team that hasn’t played an NCAA Tournament game since most of its players were in diapers? Also, will the Jamie. Dixon. Factor. matter when he leads a new team against an old rival? We talked to John Cassillo of Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician to find out.

FOW: Syracuse was the last one in the field, to the chagrin of fans of teams like Oklahoma State and St Mary’s. Did they justify their slot with Wednesday’s win?

John Cassillo: This may not be a popular opinion, but they justified the spot with their resume already. Syracuse had a strong strength of schedule and enough quality wins to get in. They’ve looked at SOS for years as a major bar, and St. Mary’s and OK State (among others) didn’t pay much attention to that when constructing a schedule.

Winning or losing on Wednesday wouldn’t have changed whether Syracuse or any team belonged in the field. What you do with your NCAA Tournament opportunities is in part talent, sure. But matchups also play a big factor in a single-elimination playoff.

FOW: There has been a lot of hand-wringing around the lack of depth in the Orange program this season, with three players average 38+ minutes per game, and those same three being the only players to average double digit scoring. How much does the quick turnaround hurt Cuse, or will they ride the momentum?

JC: If this was a two-games-in-two-days situation like the ACC Tournament, Syracuse would likely be out of gas by the time tipoff vs. TCU rolled around. But with a day to rest, I’m willing to entertain the idea that they’ll be rested enough. The more concerning matchup would be a potential second round game amounting to the third in five days for SU.

The Orange’s lack of depth can cause fatigue. But more than that, I think it just makes it easier to game plan against us. You know we only have a certain number of fouls to give. There are only three players that are truly a factor on offense. That’s the the biggest challenge for Syracuse, really.

FOW: Oshae Brissett dominated down the stretch to knock off Arizona State. Is he the guy that has to get it done for Cuse, or is there another name TCU fans should be paying attention to?

JC: Tyus Battle is our leading scorer, and ignoring him just seems like a poor idea. He’s averaging 19.7 points per game this year, can hit some threes, and is a very good free throw shooter. That said, Brissett has been a double-double machine, is our biggest inside threat with the ball in his hands, and has more versatility in how he can take over a game. If both of those guys can get to something around the 20-point mark (as they did against ASU), we’re exploiting something pretty successfully within your defense.

FOW: Everyone who has ever watched a college basketball game knows about the Syracuse zone. What does this team’s version do well and where are they vulnerable?

JC: The guards are long, as has typically been the case. But they also know how to disrupt passing lanes and have been great at keeping jump-shooting teams from getting into any real rhythm (also, see ASU again). Brissett’s ability to move from the front to the back of the zone with ease has also helped minimize some of the space that can exist within the middle of the zone.

Still, despite all of that, there are some issues near the rim. Paschal Chukwu’s a capable rim defender and shot-blocker, but neither he nor Marek Dolezaj is athletic enough to rotate quickly on the baseline. You saw the zone collapse numerous times against the Sun Devils. Teams that have quality offensive post players can exploit that. Still, this is a good rebounding team overall, so opposing squads should pick their shots wisely.

FOW: A couple years ago, y’all wrote this: Syracuse Basketball: Goodbye Jamie Dixon, Let Us Never Speak Of You Again. Well, here we are, just as it was predicted by one of your astute commenters, with Dixon facing off against his old nemesis in the first round of the Tourney. What was it about Coach Dixon that seemed to have Boeheim’s number? Does that translate to present day?

JC: As we touched on there, and in another piece linked to within that article, Dixon seemed to recruit exactly the right players to blow up the Orange zone. Once he had those bodies in place, the strategy was simple: keep setting picks or cutting to the basket, and something will open up outside by way of chaos. On top of that, those Pitt teams had the size to knock us around inside and back Syracuse centers down and/or get them and foul trouble.

What will be interesting against TCU is just how much he can stick to that script with TCU. The team wasn’t built to face that 2-3 zone twice a year, plus the derivative zones that sprouted up in the Big East and ACC because of it. You do have a bigger roster, however. So that certainly helps. I’d say between that and superior passing ability, this Frogs team is already on their way to putting something together than can at least frustrate this Orange zone.

FOW: What needs to happen for Syracuse to get by the Horned Frogs in round one? What does TCU do if they beat the Orange?

JC: For Syracuse to win, they have to stop you from establishing any sort of pace. The Orange can do that by keeping shooters on the outside and forcing poor decisions late in the shot clock. We don’t have to shoot incredibly well to win games, but we do need to find ways to score in the paint. If SU is forced to operate on the outside for 40 minutes, we’ll lose, no matter how well the defense may be playing.

If TCU wants to win, the easy answer is to watch some Pitt tape (I’m sure Dixon has shown the Frogs plenty of film from his successful matchups against Syracuse). Attack Chukwu under the basket and force him to defend you without fouling -- not an incredibly easy feat for him. On the other end, stop the Orange from getting anywhere the near paint (as mentioned above). Our big three of Frank Howard, Battle and Brissett will shoot from outside all day if you make them, and they’re not great jump-shooters.

FOW: Prediction time: Who wins, by how many, and which player is the difference maker?

JC: Syracuse might not have looked pretty the other night, but that defense showed how they can lock down an efficient offensive team that thrives from three. Even if Dixon has seen this zone before, these players haven’t (no, Baylor’s isn’t even close). It’s going to come down to which team can do more in the paint. I’m willing to bet that the Orange wings (especially Brissett) drive the lane enough to keep TCU honest and that opens up some open outside shots as the game goes on. This won’t be easy no matter who wins. But give me a Syracuse upset by a score of 70-66.

Thanks to John for taking some time to talk to us ahead of the game, and be sure to keep an eye on Nune’s Magician for our response!