By William Qualkinbush
When traveling to Syracuse for a basketball game, there are a few quirks a team must be prepared to handle.
Whether it is the first time a team makes the trip, as Clemson will do on Sunday night, or the millionth, playing against the Orange is different. The school is located off the beaten path in upstate New York. The Carrier Dome is a football arena converted for use during roundball season.
But perhaps the most identifiable quirk associated with Syracuse basketball is the unique 2-3 matchup zone defense employed by Jim Boeheim’s teams every year. As usual, the Orange have capitalized on such uniqueness this season, riding a 22-game winning streak and an undefeated overall record to the top of the major polls.
Clemson’s basketball team has a small margin for error, so handling all of Syracuse’s nuances will be especially difficult. But Brad Brownell, the man in charge of running the show as the head coach, has a simple goal for his team he hopes can lead to something big.
“I do want good effort,” he said. “I want our team to try and play with some confidence. Hopefully, playing in some environments like that before will help us do that.”
The task is daunting, to say the least. Syracuse ranks among the top 20 teams in the nation in both offensive and defensive efficiency, one of only three squads to boast that distinction. Boeheim coaches defense in his own way, forcing teams to sink outside shots and take contested twos to win. That aspect of the game concerns Brownell a bit.
“It’s not our strength,” Brownell said of perimeter shooting. “We’re certainly going to have to make some threes to win the game, and we’re going to have to take some because sometimes that’s all you can get.”
Penetration can be difficult against Syracuse because of its length and athleticism. Opportunities that generally exist for players like forward K.J. McDaniels to get to the basket will be few and far between.
McDaniels speaks with admiration about the way Boeheim crafts his teams to fit the niche he has occupied for decades.
“He’s done a great job putting players in that zone and making sure they perfect it,” McDaniels said. “I feel like that gives them a lot of rest on defense so they have energy offensively to go out and play.”
Playing in a dome also creates a different kind of environment. Some of the largest on-campus crowds in college basketball history have congregated at the Carrier Dome.
The whole spectacle can be intimidating, but the Tigers will look to draw from outside experiences to handle the pressure.
“We kind of got caught up in the atmosphere and the fans and stuff,” center Landry Nnoko said. “But I feel like we’ve grown up and moved on and gotten our nasty back.”
That “nasty” has entailed holding back-to-back opponents below the 50-point threshold. For Clemson to have a chance to win late against Syracuse, it will need to muster up another one of those performances against the nation’s best team.