SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After a three-game Atlantic Coast Conference road swing that included five charter flights and nearly 4,000 air miles over nine days, No. 15 Notre Dame returns home Saturday for the first time in two weeks.
That’s the good news. The bad? The matinee opponent waiting at sold-out Purcell Pavilion is Syracuse.
Since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013, the Irish have had zero answers for the Orange. The series slipped to one-sided back when both schools were members of the Big East.
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Notre Dame seniors V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia have seen and done a lot in their collegiate careers. They’ve yet to beat Syracuse and are 0-3 against the Orange, who have won seven of the last eight in the series.
“Yeah, it’s kind of weird,” Beachem said.
Weird would describe the way Notre Dame (16-3, 5-1 ACC) has played against Syracuse (11-8, 3-3) the last three seasons. The three games have been decided by an average of 8.6 points, but none were really that close. A year ago in central New York, Syracuse led by as many as 24.
Notre Dame is averaging 81.1 points per game, but hasn’t hit for at least 80 against Syracuse since getting 87 in a seven-point loss way back in 2008.
Thoughts of the Gerry McNamaras and Hakim Warricks and Orange zones of seasons past still haunt the Irish. Working against the zone often left Notre Dame in a zone where everything — cutting, passing, shooting, scoring, playing — is decidedly difficult.
“We’ve just got to put ourselves in good position against the zone; that’s what they do and they’re very good at it,” Vasturia said. “They do a good job of being long and making it difficult for us.”
This has not been the traditionally tough Syracuse zone where crazy athleticism and length frustrate opponents for 40 minutes. The zone was so ineffective at times earlier this season that coach Jim Boeheim scrapped it in favor of man-to-man.
It’s as if the college basketball world threatened to spin off its axis.
Syracuse is 0-3 on the road in ACC play but historically has played well in Purcell Pavilion. McNamara tormented the Irish during his career. So did Trevor Cooney.
If there’s one place the Orange can get right and notch a win, it’s in South Bend, even coming off Monday’s loss at No. 9 North Carolina.
“We did a lot of things well,” Boeheim said. “We played the best we’ve played all year on the road. It was probably our best road game. I think we’re getting better.”
Tyler Lydon can be a matchup problem. Averaging 13.7 points, Lydon is coming off a game-high 26 points at North Carolina.
“He’s a tremendous player,” Boeheim said.
Boeheim also likes how freshman guard Tyus Battle has improved in recent weeks. Battle had 13 points and a career-high four steals earlier in the week.
“He’s getting confident,” Boeheim said. “He’s been very steady, very solid.”
On Wednesday, Notre Dame had its seven-game overall win streak, and five in a row in league play, snapped at No. 10 Florida State. The Irish trailed by as many as eight, but still put themselves in position to win in the closing minutes before losing by three.
“We’re right there as far as being one of the best teams in the country,” Beachem said. “I love where we’re at, but we still have so much more to do.”