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ASU Basketball: Q&A with Nunes Magician

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So, is the zone really that good?

NCAA Basketball: California at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona State is just a day away from playing in its first NCAA Tournament game since 2014. With a brutal finish to the season, the Devils fell right on the bubble and will be taking part in the First Four Wednesday night in Dayton against the Syracuse Orange.

Since we aren’t too familiar with Syracuse, we talked John Cassillo over at Nunes Magician to give us an inside perspective on all things Orange. And since they haven’t seen too much ASU (probably because they have DirecTV), we answered some questions for them as well that can be found here, as well as at the bottom of this article.

Here’s John’s answers along with his prediction:

House of Sparky asks Nunes Magician

Jordan Kaye: ASU has not fared well against the zone defense this season, and Syracuse may be the best at running it. What should ASU expect from Syracuse’s zone?

John Cassillo: Syracuse’s zone thrives on length, and this year’s team has a ton of it, especially at the forward spots. Both guards, Tyus Battle and Frank Howard are able to disrupt ball movement around the three-point arc, and Howard led the ACC in steals this season with 1.88 per game. The purpose of the Orange zone is to force difficult shots and use up a lot of time. If you can get past the guards, you’ll be funneled straight into the middle. Paschal Chukwu is no offensive threat, but does average 2.67 blocks per game.

This is not the most suffocating zone we’ve ever had, but the young team’s taken to it quickly and is incredibly active while pouncing on mistakes. Settling for threes is usually a poor choice for opponents.

JK: The Sun Devils played against former Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins’ team, and zone, at Washington. Is that pretty much what ASU can expect, or is Washington’s zone a bit different?

JC: Hopkins isn’t as much of a zone diehard as Boeheim has become in the latter portion of his career. The Orange only transitioned to being a 100-percent zone team in the last decade and change, and Hopkins has been pretty public about not leaning on it as much, depending on the personnel.

Still, he’s used it very frequently this season, and it’s been effective. UW’s roster have less time in it than Syracuse’s players, and you can see the breakdowns in movement from time to time. They’re also not nearly as long, which means it relies more on quickness than wingspan, as Syracuse’s zone does. Hitting from outside or being accurate from the paint are two ways to get the zone out of place and spread a little too thin.

JK: Like ASU, Syracuse started the season very hot and then cooled down when conference play got going. What changed?

JC: For Syracuse, it was more a product of opponents (Kansas, St. Bonaventure) than anything else, then the injuries and unexpected departure of Geno Thorpe hit an already-thin Orange roster. With five healthy players most nights, it puts a lot of miles on Battle, Howard and Oshae Brissett, most of all. That’s not a problem for a game or two. But does become a concern over the long haul (and in tournament settings).

JK: How should ASU go about stopping Cuse guard Tyus Battle?

JC: Battle can be very creative with the basketball, but is best when he’s driving the lane and using the entirety of the floor. If you’re able to keep him operating on the perimeter, his entire game will likely suffer. Opponents that have really gotten after him around the three-point arc with some pressure have managed to limit him (and Howard, to a similar extent).

JK: Who is a lesser known player for the Orange that ASU fans should be worried about?

JC: I mean, we have so few healthy players that you should know them all, but look out for Marek Dolezaj. He doesn’t possess the gaudy stat lines of SU’s “big three” (Battle/Howard/Brissett), but the Slovakian freshman is a scrappy defender, capable rebounder and quietly accurate shooter as well. Dolezaj has hit over 52 percent of his shots this year, and excels in the mid-range. He was crucial in the Orange’s opening ACC Tournament win over Wake Forest as well, scoring 20 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the floor.

JK: How well can Syracuse’s guards defend Tra Holder and Shannon Evans?

JC: They’re quick and have range, so it’s not going to be easy. But the zone is going to aim to keep them outside the three-point arc. If it can accomplish that, it should be enough to disrupt their games a bit. If not, the forwards will be able to protect the rim -- unless foul trouble arrives (which it has numerous times this season with a limited rotation). Both players are dynamic scorers, obviously, but not overly efficient shooters. That should benefit the zone’s aim to create bad shot selection.

JK: Bobby Hurley played against Jim Boeheim at Duke and will now be coaching against him. Has Boeheim talked at all about that and how do you think their coaching styles are different?

JC: Given Boeheim’s 42-year tenure on the sidelines at Syracuse, Hurley’s far from the only player to end up coaching against Jim later on. So it hasn’t really come up, and it shouldn’t really have much effect on the outcome. As mentioned, Boeheim’s 100-percent zone focus is a fairly recent development and it came after Hurley’s playing career. It’s doubtful he’d be able to take much from that (part-time) zone and relate it to this one.

Hurley’s coaching style is definitely more offensively driven, and that’s obvious in how ASU performs on that end of the floor. Syracuse has had excellent offensive teams over the years, but when the Orange are successful, much of that is driven by the effective play on the defensive end. From what I’ve seen of Hurley, that’s not necessarily the case for the Sun Devils. Still, they’re probably a bit similar in courtside demeanor. Hurley can be inconsolable at times, as can Boeheim, though Jim has also calmed significantly in recent years. That visible fire is where they’ll find the most common ground as coaches.

JK: The Sun Devils have had inconsistent play from their bigs this season. Will Syracuse be able to take advantage of ASU in the paint?

JC: Yes and no. If your guards can’t keep ours operating on the perimeter, the Orange are going to give you fits with an inside-outside game. That’s still led mostly by the “big three,” versus Dolezaj or Chukwu, who are rarely involved in the offense. Defensively, Chukwu’s very capable of protecting the rim, but also struggles to stay out of foul trouble at times. If you can get him to pick up a few early, Bourama Sidibe is not nearly the same type of presence in the paint. Without foul trouble, expect more aggressive big men coming your way should you reach the paint.

JK: Prediction:

JC: The tempo difference between these two teams could make for a fascinating matchup of completely opposite styles. However, I think the length advantage and potential zone struggles for ASU as a result are enough to make the difference here. With ample room to operate in the paint, Syracuse looks much more fluid on offense than most national audiences have seen. The Orange make things interesting by trying to kill clock too early, but ultimately escape with a 74-70 victory here.

Nunes Magician asks House of Sparky

JC: How relieved were Sun Devils fans to hear they’d made the field? How likely did it seem heading into Selection Sunday?

JK: After starting the season 12-0, most fans, and experts, had ASU already penciled into the tournament. Then, when it finished ninth in a mediocre Pac-12, most just assumed the Devils would be accepting a NIT bid, especially since a lot of brackets had them as a first four out team. So, when their name showed up on that awful selection show, a lot of people in Tempe were genuinely shocked, and obviously excited that seniors Kodi Justice and Tra Holder get to experience the tourney.

JC: Any lingering animosity from the fan base after our last NCAA Tournament meeting? Or does that game not even register?

JK: No, that game is an afterthought to most people -- I think they know that Syracuse was the better team. I didn’t really see anyone tweeting about the fact that this was a NCAA Tournament rematch, so we tweeted out something and got two reactions: 1. That ASU lost. 2. That James Harden had a tough night (10 points on 2-10 shooting).

JC: What’s made the zone such a struggle for this Arizona State team? Smaller guards, or is there more to it than that?

JK: The first teams that started throwing the zone look at Arizona State were Longwood and Pacific at the end of the non-conference slate. Early on, the Devils could just shoot those teams back into playing man-v-man. Pac-12 teams started doing the same to ASU and executed it much better, and those shots that the Devils kept shooting to try and get their opponents back into man became much deeper and more contested. Their guards are forcing 3s and their bigs are having trouble operating down low when the get double-teamed.

JC: Obviously, ASU was really clicking at the start of the year -- what was the biggest part of that hot early stretch, and what was the biggest reason for the limp toward the finish?

JK: I think teams really started to figure out ASU after the non-conference season. Part of that is showing it a zone defense and part of that is that the Devils got everyone’s best game early in Pac-12 play. The other thing that happened was that ASU wasn’t quite killing teams from beyond the arc. It beat Xavier and Kansas by hitting on 48 and 50 percent of its 3s, respectively. In the Devils last two games, they shot 37 and 40 percent from deep.

JC: Do you feel like there’s one player that can come from out of nowhere and go off from three against the Orange? We have a habit of letting that happen.

JK: Oh, man, there’s a few guys on ASU that can, and have, done that this season -- most noticeably ASU’s trio of senior guards Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice. But, if I’m just picking one guy, it has to be Evans. He’s never seen a shot that he didn’t think he could make, and he takes a lot of them. Evans has taken 50 more 3-pointers (244) than any other player on ASU and when he knocks down one, a few more usually follow.

JC: Romello White and Da’Quon Lake are your biggest regular rotation players. Do you think their size compared to SU’s cause any problems for either team in the paint? What do they do best on the offensive and defensive ends, respectively?

JK: I think the Orange defiantly have the size advantage in the paint with Chukwu, Dolezaj and Brissett. Whiten and Lake have struggled going up against guys that are taller than them, mainly just getting shots around the rim from falling, but also on the defensive end. Both have had games this season where they’ll pick up a barrage of fouls in just a few minutes and hardly get back on the court.

JC: What role will pace play in this game? Arizona State is one of the country’s most up-tempo teams according to KenPom, while the Orange are... not (342nd).

JK: Pace is going to critical, and I believe that whatever team can really dictate there’s will be who wins. ASU wants to run and get a ton of points in transition. When it does that, it can throw a ton of points on the scoreboard in a very little amount of time.

Oregon, who is also towards the bottom of that list, was probably the first team that really tried to combat that. The Ducks would milk that shot clock, grab an offensive rebound and then milk it again. ASU kept trying to take its quick shots, but couldn’t get out in transition like it wanted. The Ducks ended up taking 19 more shots from the field in that game, which is a very good sign for Syracuse.

JC: Which Syracuse player concerns you most?

JK: Defiantly Tyus Battle, and for a few reasons. He gets to the line quite often, and I have a feeling that most of those are going to come at the hands of ASU’s big men. They can get into foul trouble quick, and with a guard that can drive like battle, he may be able to take a few of ASU’s forewords out of the game. Also, ASU’s guards aren’t very tall. It will be interesting to see how they manage to guard and get by Battle.

JC: Thoughts on Jim Boeheim?

JK: Just watching from afar on some ESPN games and in the tournament, he reminds me a lot of Hurley in terms of their personalities. Both are very fiery and energetic and seem to have their players backs no matter what. But, unlike Hurley, I have watched Boeheim coach in March quite a lot. He knows how to get teams ready for win or go home matchups and seems to fare very well when he’s the underdog.

JC: Prediction time: What happens in this one, and what’s the final score?

JK: ASU has not looked good in the last three months and it has not been able to crack the zone this season. For that all to change on Wednesday, it would take an unbelievable performance from ASU. I think the zone will end up being too much for the Devils and if Syracuse can really slow down their offense, they don’t have much of a chance. I see Syracuse winning by six.