The South Regional Semifinal will pin second seeded Oklahoma against third seeded Syracuse. The tip-off in Memphis is set for Friday at 7:27 p.m. EST
The 27-5 Sooners knocked off Morgan State in the opening round 82-54 and took care of business against Michigan in the second round, 73-63. Syracuse hasn't won quite as easily, thumping Stephen F. Austin by a 59-44 score before sneaking by Arizona State, 78-67.
Oklahoma's Offensive Game Plan
Strong guard-play: Austin Johnson and Willie Warren need to shoot well from outside the perimeter. When the Sooners won 11 consecutive conference games, their guards shot around 40 percent from beyond the three-point line. Johnson and Warren need to step up against the Syracuse 2-3 zone and hit big shots when called upon. The Naismith Trophy finalist, Blake Griffin cannot beat the Orange by himself.
As a whole, the Sooners need to effectively read the double-teams Blake Griffin will face in order to get everyone involved including the elder Griffin, Taylor. Oklahoma must get the ball inside to Blake in order to open up the floor for the other offensive weapons. The Sooners must be smart with their passing in order to avoid turnovers against the Orange's zone defense.
Syracuse's Offensive Game Plan
Get everybody involved: The 'Cuse features six players that can change and even win a game with their offense. Super sophomore Jonny Flynn will beat defenders off the dribble to take the ball to the paint will he can facilitate or finish, but the point guard has also shown the ability to cross a man over to stop and pop a jumper.
Junior Eric Devendorf can also get to the lane easily and is a better finisher than Flynn, but also knocks down the long range bomb frequently and efficiently (80 threes made, 40 percent overall). Fellow guard Andy Rautins will come off the bench as a long range threat; he's essentially a very poor man's J.J. Redick.
Paul Harris hits the glass hard, but also has a solid mid-range jump shot and can take the ball to the hoop occasionally.
In the post, Jim Boeheim has two tanks that simply never miss around the basket. Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson both finished in the top five in field goal percentage in the Big East.
With all those weapons, Boeheim basically lets the offense run freely. He gives Flynn the command to get everyone his shots and get everyone on track.
Oklahoma's Defensive Gameplan
Oklahoma must defend against the three-point shot. Similar to the Sooners, the Orange like to work the ball into the blocks with forwards Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku and then kick the ball out to their shooters, Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins.
Defend the transition: The Sooners must be able to run with Syracuse when the 'Cuse gets into its transition game. The Orange's Jonny Flynn likes to play up-tempo basketball and he is one of the best in the country getting down the floor and making quick decisions. This could spell problems for Oklahoma considering its lack of depth at the guard positions.
Syracuse's Defensive Gameplan
Jim Boeheim will likely rely on his 2-3 zone to do what it does best, force teams into bad shots. He won't care if Blake Griffin is in the middle, he'll want his players to rotate accordingly to force the potential Player of the Year to have a poor shot selection. If the Orange rotates properly which will be difficult as Oklahoma will likely have at least three long range threats at all times, then OU will settle for bad perimeter jumpers.
Stopping both Griffin and the Sooners' shooters will be nearly impossible for the 'Cuse unless it plays a perfect game defensively. OU can help out the Orange by taking advantage of the first open look the Sooners get each possession and taking quick shots.
What this rivalry means to Oklahoma
Back in 2003, these two teams met in an Elite Eight matchup in Albany, NY, with Syracuse advancing to the Final Four and eventually defeating the Kansas Jayhawks for the National Title. None of the current players were present at this game nor was current Oklahoma coach, Jeff Capel. However, this is not say Oklahoma doesn't want to seek revenge for what former Syracuse star Carmelo Anthony did to Kelvin Sampson and his Sooner team, advancing to the Final Four by a score of 63-47.
What this rivalry means to Syracuse
It's not much of a rivalry really. The 'Cuse doesn't have any gripes with Oklahoma since the Sooners laid down in Albany during the Orange's incredible run to the school's only National Championship. With many similarities between the '03 title run and this year's tournament for the Orange, a win against Oklahoma to advance would be very fitting.
Will Willie Warren be able to hang with Eric Devendorf and Jonny Flynn?
Wille Warren is going to bring his A-game just like he did against Morgan State and Michigan. Although he is just a freshman, he has been solid thus far in the tournament, shooting well from the field and coming up big in key spots. Defensively, Warren must step up his game in order to guard against the perimeter shooting of the Orange guards.
Should the Orange focus on stopping just Blake Griffin or equally stopping everybody?
To make this simpler, do you want to die by lethal injection or guillotine? If the Syracuse 2-3 zone plays the way it has during this stretch of nine wins in ten days, then the 'Cuse won't have too much trouble stopping everybody.
The defensive players have been rotating through the zone flawlessly which allows the Orange to double the post, but also cover the perimeter to prevent the three-point shot. If Griffin catches the ball in the high post, the Orange will commit a forward (Jackson or Onuaku) and a guard.
This defensive strategy will be similar to what the Orange employed against Jeff Adrien and forced UConn into 20 turnovers during their regular season meeting. The 'Cuse's remaining forwards will have to really pay attention to know whether someone is making a back cut to the basket or sneaking to the corner for a three-point attempt.
If Griffin catches the ball near the baseline, the Orange will collapse two forwards on him. The remaining defenders better be ready to zip around the perimeter and keep their hands up. When the ball goes baseline, Griffin will expect a trap. With a likely pass coming, the defenders must keep their hands up to deflect or steal the pass.
Will Griffin carry the team to the Elite Eight?
There is no doubt about it that Griffin has impeccable work ethic and toughness. Even Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops would like to have this kid on his team. But in basketball, the x-factor for Griffin is foul trouble and he must be careful not to pick up costly fouls throughout the game.
There is no doubt that coach Jim Boeheim will be trying to use his big bodies against Griffin and try to catch him off-guard, but he is just too tough mentally and physically to be stopped.
Will the balanced, up-tempo Orange attack be too much for Oklahoma?
Most teams are finding it very hard to slow down the 'Cuse offensively (when not tired from six overtimes). Oklahoma simply doesn't have the flexibility because of its lack of depth to compensate for the fact that the 'Cuse can will again by flexing its muscle in the post, but also from drilling shots around the perimeter.
OU may need to commit one less player to the offensive glass in order to have one more player back on defense when Flynn, Harris, Devendorf, or Rautins bring the ball up court looking for an easy basket before setting into the halfcourt offense.
OU will win, 74-67, behind Blake Griffin’s 30 points and 15 rebounds. Willie Warren and Austin Johnson come up big for the Sooners, shooting 45 percent behind the arc. The Sooners are able to apply defensive pressure to stop Jonny Flynn and Eric Devendorf on the perimeter. The Griffin brothers are able to out-muscle Onuaku and Jackson underneath the basket.
Syracuse wins, 83-79. This game will have plenty of offensive fireworks. Oklahoma won't have enough answers for the Orange defensively while either Blake Griffin or Jeff Capel's guards will go off, but both won't happen.
In the end, its usually the Orange's opponents who go cold from the perimeter because its opponents usually take too many quick, somewhat open looks. That will be the difference as long as Blake Griffin doesn't go off for 40 and 20.