A month ago, Syracuse (16-8, 6-5) appeared on their way to missing back-to-back NCAA tournaments for the first time since 2007-2008. They were 0-4 in the ACC. They'd lost to a St. John's team which may not win a conference game this year. And the team looked like they'd forgotten how to run their patented zone defense.
But then Coach Boeheim returned from his 9-game suspension, and at the same time the schedule eased up. In the past seven games (6-1) they've gotten Boston College, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech at home, and Wake Forest on the road. In between those four, they won at Duke, lost at Virginia, and beat Notre Dame at the Carrier Dome.
Now, in a lot of mock brackets, they are neck and neck with Florida State (16-7, 6-5).
The Orange have a good combination of experience and talent. They are led by a pair of 5th year seniors, and all eight players who get minutes were consensus top 100 recruits. But even though they have eight or nine guys that can play, they really go with six. They've used the same starting lineup in every game this season, and they have five guys who have all played > 74% of the minutes (which is more than any single Seminole has played).
Michael Gbinije, recruited as a 5* small forward to Duke, is now the point guard for the Orange. He's capable of playing anywhere on the perimeter, but is the primary ball handler and leads the team in points (17.2 ppg), assists (4.4), steals (2.3), and minutes (38.0).
Fellow senior Trevor Cooney scores 13.5 per game, and 6-6 freshman Malachi Richardson is just behind him at 13.4. All three players shoot more 3s than 2s, but none are great shooters. Gbinije makes 37% of his 3s, while Cooney and Richardson each make 36%.
As a team, 38% of their points come via the 3-ball, which is the highest in the ACC.
In short, they are a high variance offense, and are capable of blowing people out when they shoot well, and losing to lesser teams when they don't.
This is especially important for Florida State, as Syracuse is a good offensive rebounding team, but if FSU can clear the boards and Syracuse is missing shots, that will open up the transition game.
That's where FSU needs to score. When Syracuse falls into their zone, they force longer possessions than any team in college basketball. They've held their opponents to below 30% 3-point shooting, and West Virginia is the only high major team that generates more steals.
Their big weakness is defensive rebounding, so in half court sets Florida State will have to get shots up and crash the boards.
The game tips Thursday at 7 PM from the Carrier Dome, and will be broadcast on ESPN.