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ASU needs to stop Syracuse’s dynamic ball-handlers to advance to Friday

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, right, talks with guard Tyus Battle (25) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville, Monday, Feb. 5, 2018, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

As the newly dubbed “Guard U,” Arizona State will have to prove it is just that if it wants to advance out of the First Four of the NCAA Tournament.

The Sun Devils take on a Syracuse team that is even more dependent on ball-handlers than they are.

The trio of sophomore Tyus Battle (19.8), junior Frank Howard (15.0) and freshman Oshae Brissett (14.7) average a combined 49.5 points per game, which is 73.3 percent of the 67.5 points per game the Orange score. The next highest scorer is starting center Paschal Chukwu at 5.4 points per game.

Arizona State’s trio of seniors Tra Holder (18.4), Shannon Evans (16.6) and Kodi Justice (12.6) come close with their combined average of 47.6 points per game, but the major difference between the two groups is size.

Battle is 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds, Howard weighs the same at 6-foot-5 and Brissett is 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds. Compare that to Holder being 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, Evans listed at 6-foot-1 and 172 pounds and Justice being the tallest of the group at 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds and you’ve got a serious size mismatch.

The other is the way they go about getting those points, with Syracuse’s lack of shooting leading to a whole lot of slashing.

Battle is a quick, dynamic ball-handler. He can shoot off the dribble, but he’s at his best using his agility to quickly get to the rim and finish. How fast Battle can get by his initial defender leads to extra attention from help defenders and he’s been improving at making the right pass in that situation.

That being said, Battle is the team’s leading scorer while Howard is the point guard of the group, leading the team in assists with five a game. Like Battle, Howard wants to get into the lane, as does Brissett.

While those two rely on a variation of speed and power, Brissett is more shifty, playing with a sense of misdirection as he attacks the rim and is the craftiest finisher of the group. Suns fans will see a little bit of T.J. Warren in his game.

Head coach Jim Boeheim built his offense around the ability of those three. They run an iso-heavy system, using ball screen after ball screen to get the two guards in playmaking situations and Brissett space to finish in his favorite spots.

That system shows in the assist numbers, where Syracuse averages 11 a game, ranked 329th in the country.

That isn’t helped by their lack of 3-point shooting.

Syracuse also ranks poorly there, 305th in the country at 32.3 percent. They are much more limited there, as the scoring trio has taken 92.6 percent (556-of-600) of its 3-point attempts this season.

While that might sound like a red flag for the ‘Cuse, the big problem is its three primary scorers aren’t efficient. Battle (40.4 percent) Howard (38.1 percent) and Brissett (35.2 percent) lack the consistency in field goal percentage to be trusted, especially when considering they produce that aforementioned 73.3 percent of the Orange’s points.

Arizona State’s defining weakness on the season has been defensive rotations off the ball, and with the way Syracuse tries to score, ASU will be tested more than ever. If the interior presence is there to help when the perimeter defense falters, along with the necessary rotations after the ball makes it inside, they can take a real grip on the game by forcing the inefficient Syracuse ball-handlers into poor shots.

Taking that into consideration, though, those who have seen the Sun Devils’ defense know the guards won’t be able to do much to contain those three, and it will rather come down to how Syracuse takes advantage of defensive errors and, more so, what Arizona State does on the other side of the ball.

Syracuse’s defensive efficiency has been excellent this year in Boeheim’s signature 2-3 zone, ranking 11th in the country, per The three perimeter scorers combine to average 4.7 steals a game, using their superior length and athleticism to force deflections and bad looks.

How Arizona State uses dribble penetration, tries to keep the speed of the game high when breaking down that zone and making Syracuse pay with the deep ball they shoot at 36.4 percent will likely be the swing in the game.

The other key area to watch is free throw shooting and turnovers. Arizona State lives at the free-throw line, checking at 13th in free throw rate and 14th in turnover percentage. Syracuse, meanwhile, gets to the line in similar fashion with a No. 34 ranking in free throw rate, but they are bad at taking care of the ball, sporting a No. 213 ranking in turnover percentage.

For all the flak ASU’s defense rightfully gets, their turnover percentage defense is 49th.

Outside of Syracuse’s defensive profile to stop ASU’s high-powered offense and the Orange’s size advantage on the perimeter, if the discrepancy in turnovers by the Syracuse offense and how much the Arizona State defenses forces them shines through, it could be what the Sun Devils need to balance out those two glaring issues to move on to Friday.


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