After splitting games against Texas Tech and San Diego State in Las Vegas, the Iowa Hawkeyes (5-2) head to New York to take on the Syracuse Orange (4-3) in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. The Hawks are 6-12 throughout the event’s 20 years while Syracuse is an even 3-3 after moving over from the Big East. The ACC has the edge at 12-5-3, though their five losses have come in the last 10 years.
Syracuse’s losses this season have come against 3 top 25 teams according to KenPom: Virginia (3), Oklahoma State (22), and Penn State (24). We have officially jumped the shark when teams are playing conference opponents in the first game of the season. Tony Bennett put Jim Boeheim in a headlock that day, en route to a 48-34 win for the Cavaliers. Yeash.
Eliminating that game, Syracuse averages a much more modest 77.3 points/game and 1.10 points/possession (71.1 & 1.04, otherwise), though their calling card is defense. KenPom has their adjusted efficiency in that department ranked 44th, which is well below where they normally finish a season over the last 10 years (average of 15th when removing their outlier 2017 season). They’ll play exclusively zone and have forced teams into shooting over 50.8% of their shots from deep (26.8% shooting percentage) but are susceptible to ball movement. No team has yielded more assisted baskets than SU, who allow 68.1% of field goals to be assisted.
- Elijah Hughes: The 6’6” small forward is easily the Orange’s most important offensive player. He averages 19 points and 4.3 assists per on 44% shooting, 40% from deep. He’s also adding a steal and block per game on the defensive end while playing 90% of available minutes. After hedging towards a 3&D player last year, he’s rounded out his game with stalwarts now gone from the roster, including an improved 3-point percentage despite increased attempts. If the Orange need a basket, he’ll be the guy with the ball in his hands and Boeheim has adjusted to make that easier.
- Marek Dolezaj: While the 6’10”, 185-lb Slovakian is unlikely to score in bunches (just 12 double digit scoring games in 78 career games), he is the most obvious mismatch Syracuse will have since Iowa is going small to open the game. After demonstrating some stretchiness last season, he’s shot just three from behind the arc this season as he’s moved a little more inside: he’s 20/31 (64.5%) from two and is posting a career high in offensive rebounding rate.
- Buddy Boeheim: The sophomore guard is Syracuse’s second leading scorer at 13.4 per game despite having the highest share of shots on the team (29.4% vs. Hughes’s 25.8%). As a 35% shooter from deep, he basically lives outside the arc with 61% of his shots coming from there and only 1.3 free throw attempts/game.
- Does Iowa settle for threes? The biggest question when facing a zone-first team is whether or not they’ll run the zone offense or lazily pass the ball outside and settle for long, often contested, threes. In Jordan Bohannon, Joe Wieskamp, and C.J. Fredrick, Iowa has three guys who can make those shots but really, they are not the best shots against Syracuse’s zone, as they are yielding just 26.8% from behind the arc. Iowa needs to attack the high post with Luka Garza or even dribble penetration from Joe Toussaint. From there, they’ll still need to make the right pass and find the open man. Whether that’s from three or not is to be determined.
- Can they slow down Elijah Hughes? With Iowa’s small lineup, they’re now faced with guarding Dolezaj with Connor McCaffery should Joe Wieskamp take the primary role against Hughes. While Iowa may be able to contain him, there’s the potential for him to go off similarly to Malachi Flynn at any point in the game. Iowa will need to be locked in, especially because keying on Hughes may lead to open threes from Boeheim or freshman Joseph Girard.
- Which performance do we see from bench players? After leaning on starters against Texas Tech, Fran shifted towards his bench against SDSU. While they were unable to do enough to shift the tide back into Iowa’s favor, they provided the scoring punch the Hawks needed on Friday with 25 points between Toussaint, Bakari Evelyn, and Ryan Kriener. Cuse’s zone will require a heady performance from this group and Iowa can ill-afford to have seven missed shots and four turnovers from Toussaint again, irrespective of whatever dynamism he provides. Against a zone, though, there will be opportunity to pull offensive boards and all of Iowa’s bench mob is capable of that.