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EMU vs. Syracuse Preview: Eagles Take On the No. 2 Syracuse Orange on ESPNU

The Eagles look for a landmark victory Tuesday afternoon against the undefeated Syracuse Orange at the Carrier Dome.

Bryant and the Eagles will attempt to pull of the upset Tuesday in another hostile environment.
Bryant and the Eagles will attempt to pull of the upset Tuesday in another hostile environment.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

With only three days remaining in the 2013 calendar year, many people have already flipped the calendar or are making plans for a fun Tuesday night out. For the Eastern Michigan Eagles, arguably their biggest test of the 2013-14 season comes in the 11th hour of the year-- a non-conference tilt against the No. 2 ranked Syracuse Orange at the Carrier Dome.

Murphy-Boeheim III. The Battle of the 2-3 Zones. Snow Belt v. Hustle Belt. Riley’s Homecoming II. Whatever you call it, it will be the final showcase of the Eagles to a wide audience before they head into MAC play.

Syracuse comes in with an undefeated 12-0 record and a recent 78-62 win over the No. 8 Villanova Wildcats. After being down by 18 points early, the Orange tightened up their defense and went on a 20-0 run to take a lead they would never relinquish. The win was hard fought-- Villanova closed the lead to 56-53 with seven minutes remaining before the Orange pulled away. Syracuse was led by Trevor Cooney (21 points, 3 steals, 5-8 3PFG), Tyler Ennis (20 points, 4 rebounds), and CJ Fair (17 points, 6 rebounds).

The Eagles enter the matchup with a 7-4 record, coming off an 82-59 loss to the No. 9 Duke Blue Devils. Under Rob Murphy, Eastern has steadily improved its roster, built through talented transfer athletes. The 2013-14 squad includes scoring upgrades over last season with the additions of Karrington Ward (15.0 PPG, 6.2 RPG) and Mike Talley (9.5 PPG) to go with Glenn Bryant III and Daylen Harrison. EMU has played a rigorous non-conference schedule, but has yet to pick up a landmark victory for its postseason tournament résumé. The Eagles have played Kentucky, Massachusetts, Purdue, and Duke close in the first half, but turnovers and late defensive lapses have cost them chances to pull off big upsets.

This is the third consecutive season that Eastern will take on Syracuse. Last season, the Eagles jumped out to a 10-3 lead, but after a Boeheim timeout, Syracuse put the ¾ court press on, rattled the EMU backcourt, and finished the half on a 32-7 run. Final Score: 84-48. A palindromic loss. The bright spots of that matchup were 16 points from Glenn Bryant and 18 points from graduated Derek Thompson. However, most of Bryant’s buckets came in garbage time.

As long as the Eagles play much better than their showing Saturday against Duke, this game has the potential to be a grind-it-out game that will come down to free throws, transition buckets, and finding holes in the 2-3 zone. The Eagles have an upgraded roster over last year, and will go up against many of the same players that overmatched them in 2012. The Eagles have size inside, but will have to be able to handle the length and athleticism of the Syracuse backcourt.

Scouting the Syracuse Orange:

Syracuse is a talented team with a playing style that will be the model example of what Rob Murphy has implemented in Ypsilanti. A stifling, physical, and demanding 2-3 zone defense, a team that forces turnovers, and takes advantage in transition, and opportunistic three point shots.

The Orange are lead by CJ Fair (17.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.9 SPG), Trevor Cooney (14.1 PPG), and Tyler Ennis (12.1 PPG, 5.4 APG, 2.8 SPG). Syracuse ranks 25th in the nation is scoring defense (62.1 points allowed), are 12th in fewest turnovers (9.9 turnovers per game), and 4th in the nation in turnover margin (forcing 16.7 turnovers per game).

Unlike Duke, who was lead by freshman Jabari Parker, and the turnstile freshman lineup at Kentucky, Syracuse fields a veteran, disciplined lineup (Ennis is the only freshman in their lineup with consistent minutes). With Syracuse boasting a top defense, Eastern Michigan will have to maintain its season average of holding opponents to 36.7% from the field (4th in the nation) in order to remain close in the game. Unless the game gets away from the Eagles, points should be at a premium.

Here is what will need to happen for the Eagles to have a chance to pull off the colossal upset.

Cover the Twilight Zone:

The Eastern defense has generated a 7.6 blocks per game average (4th in NCAA) and 8.4 steals per game (31st in NCAA). Unfortunately, in their losses to UMass, Kentucky, and Duke, there has been one play that has plagued them. The interior defenders somehow always lose the big man on the baseline, just outside of the key. Jabari Parker gashed the Eagles for it multiple times on Saturday, and UMass took advantage of it 3-4 times in the second half to pull away.

Whenever the ball handler gets into the front court, DaShonte Riley or Glenn Bryant always rotate to guard the ball, and leaves the lost big man wide open under the hoop for a dunk. EMU appeared to pay extra attention to the Duke outside shooters, which may be the reason for the excessive number of lob dunks Saturday.

Syracuse shoots 36.6% from three-point range on about 15 attempts per game, which will allow for them to pay more attention to the middle. However, if Riley and Bryant fail to pay attention the man sitting on the baseline under the hoop or get help in the middle so the big man doesn’t have to rotate over, that high-percentage play will be open all game.

Attack the Basket:

Especially going up against a 2-3 zone, the best chance for a high-percentage shot is to push the ball up the floor and attack the interior before they have a chance to get their half-court defense set. Eastern’s biggest successes against Duke came when Mike Talley (20 points), J.R. Sims (10 points), and Karrington Ward (11 points) all attacked the basket early in the possession. They either ended up with free throws, a made basket, or a blown lay-up. Even if Eastern misses a few of the easier lay-ups on Tuesday, they will still generate more free throw attempts and easier looks at the baskets than the highly contested jumpers they settled for on Saturday.

Crash the Boards:

The biggest gripe by the broadcasters on the ESPN telecast was that outside of Glenn Bryant, nobody on Eastern attacked the boards for rebounds. It showed when Duke had 20 offensive rebounds in the game. Coach Rob Murphy said after the game, " ... To be successful, ultimately, the way we play, we have to rebound the basketball and we didn't do a great job of that tonight."

Some of that can be attributed to the number of fouls the bigs for Eastern accumulated early on in the contest, but when there are two green jerseys and one white jersey under the hoop, the green jerseys should win. That didn’t happen against Duke. Even when EMU was leading in the first 10 minutes of last year’s matchup against Syracuse, they gave up SEVEN offensive rebounds. Seven offensive boards in 10 minutes. The Orange finished with 16 offensive rebounds in that game, but didn’t need them after taking a commanding lead early in the second half.

If the Eagles want to win, they need to maintain their intensity contesting shots like they have done all season, but players like Riley and Ward need to follow Bryant’s lead and attack the boards with intensity.

In a game where the half court sets and tight defense will slow the pace of the game down, minimizing extra possessions for the opposition will be crucial. That is why winning the glass battle will be critical.

Additionally, with the tight defense, any quick transition possessions that can lead to less traffic and congestion at the hoop for scorers will benefit the Eagles. Finally, solidifying the middle will be critical to avoid the highlight reel plays that will get the Carrier Dome crowd into the game and make it easier on the opposition. If Eastern can take care of those three areas, the players on this roster have what it takes to give the Orange all they can handle.

The game will be televised at 3:00 p.m. on ESPNU and available online through ESPN3.