The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team is back in the Sweet 16 after an up-and-down year that caused some in the media to call for the Orange’s ouster in the round of 64 against the Montana Grizzlies.
The No. 4 seed Orange (28-9, 11-7 Big East) dismantled Montana 81-34 to advance to the third round of the NCAA tournament to face the California Golden Bears and the Pac-12 player of the year, Allen Crabbe.
Syracuse played spectacular defense against Cal, holding Crabbe to eight points—10 points below his season average—and pulled off the 66-60 victory. The Orange were fortunate that their defense stepped up, as they only made six baskets for the duration of the second half.
That half also saw the Orange go 12 minutes without a field goal.
Despite the poor showing in the second half, the Orange accomplished their only goals in the tournament.
Survive and advance.
Up next for the Orange are the Hoosiers of Indiana on Thursday at 9:45 p.m. EDT. The game will be played in Washington D.C., at the home of Syracuse’s most hated foe, Georgetown.
While Syracuse may hate playing at the Verizon Center, the team will surely relish the opportunity for tournament revenge against the team that so memorably defeated the then-Orangemen in the 1987 tournament final at the hands of Keith Smart.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has erased the memory of that loss with his 2003 NCAA championship, but he must feel that some unfinished business must be attended to.
Last season, the Orange were led by a superb cast that included Kris Joseph, Dion Waiters and Scoop Jardine. The Orange suffered only one regular-season loss, which was chalked up to not having sophomore center Fab Melo available due to academic restrictions.
Syracuse, along with Kentucky, was one of the favorites to win the NCAA championship, but just before the tournament started, Melo was once again prohibited from playing, due to academics.
Without its big man, Syracuse fell to Ohio State in the Elite Eight and was forced to spend the summer wondering what could have been.
Fast forward to this season. Syracuse has not had close to the depth it had last season, which boasted a roster that went 10 deep, but the players who have played significant minutes have each enjoyed varying degrees of success.
To get past No. 1 seed Indiana and its star duo of Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, the Orange will have to use their superior size at the guard spots to either force Indiana to settle for long jump shots or to create turnovers to get out in transition.
Transition will be the ultimate key, as the Orange do not have an inside presence to compete with Indiana’s bigs.
Running on the assumption that Syracuse gets by Indiana, the Orange have only three opponents between them and a second national championship.
Should the Orange win, they would get the winner of the game between Miami and Marquette.
Syracuse has already lost to Marquette, and Miami has one of the best guard combos in the nation, so choosing an opponent more desirable than the other is quite difficult.
But let’s give it a shot.
Here is a look forward to discover the best possible path for Syracuse to win a national championship.
On February 25, then-No. 22 Marquette defeated then-No. 12 Syracuse 74-71 in Milwaukee.
Marquette was fueled by Davante Gardner’s 26 points, as he slid in and out of the Syracuse zone and made all seven of his field goals.
Gardner added 12-of-13 from the free-throw line and even dominated the glass with eight rebounds.
Syracuse played a tough game but Marquette is a heck of a place to play a basketball game, and winning on the road in the Big East is never an easy task. The win against Syracuse was the 24th consecutive home win for the Golden Eagles at the Bradley Center.
The Orange are 8-5 all-time against Marquette but have a few losses fresh on their minds, one of which was in the second round of the NCAA tournament just two years ago when No. 11 seed Marquette took out No. 3 seed Syracuse 66-62.
Being conference foes gives the game an added twist, as both teams are familiar with each other.
The other option for Syracuse would be the No. 2 seed Miami Hurricanes.
Miami is the reigning champion of the ACC in both the regular season and the ACC tournament. The Hurricanes have a dynamic duo of guards with Shane Larkin and Durand Scott, who are arguably the best guard combo in the NCAA.
Although Miami’s bigs rebound well and the team plays good defense, they will not overwhelm any team with any one aspect of their game. Miami is a collective success. A jack of all trades but master of none, which has contributed to its successes.
If Syracuse has its druthers, Miami would probably be the more desirable opponent.
The 2-3 zone is the primary reason, as the Hurricanes have not faced anything like it this season. This Miami team throws up a lot of threes, which is exactly what Syracuse wants: Forced threes and long rebounds that lead to fast-break points.
A game against Marquette would be a grind, and while Marquette hasn’t played fantastically this tournament, Syracuse’s last half of basketball wasn’t exactly a masterpiece either. Marquette understands the inner workings of the zone, and for added incentive to stay away from Marquette, in the last game the two teams played, Marquette out-attempted Syracuse at the free-throw line 35-7.
Part of surviving the later rounds of the tournament is physical preservation. A game against Marquette is physically bruising and tiring, while a game against Miami might just be tiring. This isn’t because Miami is any less tough than Marquette. It’s about familiarity. The Golden Eagles are comfortable banging with Syracuse. Miami will be more concerned with positioning than getting in a physical battle.
The better chance for Syracuse to advance is Miami.
The choices for potential opponents in the Final Four are Kansas, Michigan, Florida and FGCU.
The obvious team Syracuse would want to play is FGCU, but it has nothing to do with seeding. It’s the style of play.
Kansas would be the most well-rounded team of the bunch, with Jeff Withey anchoring the boards and solid guard play.
Florida has great guard play and shoots at a very high clip, but is not a very good rebounding team. Florida relies heavily on its outstanding guards, who are very able defenders and give it the ability to score out of transition when needed.
With names like Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway, Jr., Michigan sounds like an NBA team more than a college team. The person who might give Syracuse the biggest fits, however, is 6’10” freshman Mitch McGary, whose 21 points on 10-of-11 shooting and 14 rebounds proved to be the question VCU could not answer in the game leading up to the Sweet 16.
FGCU has the ability to shoot threes, but is not a three-point shooting team. This is a team that wants to run and wants to dunk, earning the moniker “Dunk City.”
FGCU is severely undersized against Syracuse, which would make penetrating the zone, either with movement or passing, very difficult. Should the game turn into a track meet; Syracuse would feel very comfortable obliging them.
FGCU is the first No. 15 seed to ever make the Sweet 16 and has at least a puncher’s chance to survive Florida. It’s not likely that FGCU could get past Kansas or Michigan, but stranger things have happened.
The choice is FGCU, with Michigan coming in second.
Carmelo Anthony gets a piece of the net in 2003
If the Orange are fortunate enough to get to the finals, the team awaiting them could be Louisville, Oregon, Michigan State, Duke, Wichita State, La Salle, Arizona or Ohio State.
At first glance, La Salle seems to be the team that Syracuse would want to play first.
But looks can be deceiving.
The La Salle Explorers played in the very underrated Atlantic 10 and managed wins against Butler and VCU within three days of each other in late January. Perhaps more impressive, however, is that the Explorers won this year’s Big 5, which gives them bragging rights as the best basketball team in Philadelphia (which may include the 76ers).
La Salle is a bad rebounding team, and isn’t particularly great at anything, but there’s something about that Philly grit that makes them tough as the city that calls them theirs.
The team Syracuse would pick as the perfect championship date is Oregon.
The Oregon Ducks come out of a fairly weak Pac-12 and save for senior Arsalan Kazemi, who averages almost 10 rebounds and over two steals per game, don’t seem to have any player who can dominate in any area.
Oregon averages more turnovers than takeaways and has only three players on its entire roster who average more assists than turnovers.
This lack of movement of the ball, combined with sloppiness when it does move, would spell doom for the Ducks.
Oregon has good size and has shot the ball extremely well in defiance of its No. 12 seed, but the hot streak the Ducks are on will likely come to a screeching halt against the Louisville Cardinals in the Sweet 16.
Oregon’s opponents, Oklahoma State and St. Louis were decent teams but neither is of the caliber of Louisville.
That being said, a Syracuse fan’s wish list for opponents in the finals does not include Louisville, nor will it ever.
It does include Oregon this year, and if that doesn’t work out, La Salle could fill in.