Syracuse Orange's Blueprint to Win the 2014 NCAA Tournament
After an ugly finish to the regular season and ACC tournament, the Syracuse Orange are glad to turn the page and take on the challenge of the NCAA tournament.
A year ago, Jim Boeheim and Co. engineered a Final Four run based on the strength of the team's zone defense and pro-bound playmakers. This season, the zone is still there, but the backcourt has changed, and everyone's roles are a bit different.
Can 'Cuse get back on track after losing five of its past seven contests? Boeheim will turn to senior leader C.J. Fair and standout freshman Tyler Ennis to lead the troops in their quest to bring "Jimmy B" his second national title.
Syracuse's potential championship run begins in Buffalo, and its road to the Final Four would take them through Memphis and onto Arlington. So what do they need to do in order to win six in a row and take home the national title?
Don't Rely on Hero-Ball from Ennis and Fair
Despite a solid cast of playmakers and scorers, Syracuse has struggled offensively for much of the second half of the season.
In fact, the Orange have scored more than 60 points just twice over the team's past 11 contests. The team's collective chemistry often breaks down early in possessions, as its players abandon the pick-and-roll ball movement in favor of isolations.
Possessions have often resulted in one of three different players individually bailing 'Cuse out: C.J. Fair, Tyler Ennis or Jerami Grant.
That kind of hero-ball won't cut it in the Big Dance, and the Orange should focus on dishing the ball laterally while looking to hit cutters like Grant and Rakeem Christmas.
Syracuse is averaging 11.9 assists per game, and they must drastically improve that mark if they want to run the table over these next few weeks. A realistic goal should be 15 assists per game, and it's up to Ennis and Fair as the team leaders to establish a culture of ball movement.
Collectively Get Cooney Going
Long-range specialist Trevor Cooney is a lethal weapon when he finds open looks, and his game-to-game effectiveness is a huge indicator of whether the Orange win.
He posted 12.2 points per game this season, but as the season wore on, opponents did a great job of making him a non-factor. In Syracuse's losses, Cooney averaged a meager 6.6 points on 26 percent shooting from the field.
Boeheim needs to get him back on track if he wants to cut down the nets in April.
In order to get Cooney rolling again, however, it's much more than a one-man proposition; the entire team must work to get him open. That means screening for him, looking for him on drive-and-kicks and finding him in transition.
The rest of it is up to Cooney to find the creases, square up and fire away.
Unleash the Zone's Full Effect as a Transition Weapon
Syracuse hasn't run quite as much in 2013-14 as it has over the past couple seasons, as the team has been operating more frequently at a deliberate, half-court pace.
But the Orange would do well to force some turnovers and find easy baskets whenever possible. The amoeba 2-3 zone can be a lethal weapon when it is used to pressure opponents, take away the ball and take advantage of the team's athleticism in transition.
Players like Fair and Grant were practically born to play this zone, and they were also blessed with the mobility and athleticism to run the floor and finish above the competition.
Considering their half-court deficiencies this season, Boeheim's boys would love to score opportunistically in the Big Dance. Playmaking guards Ennis and Michael Gbinije should be constantly on the prowl to swipe steals and then quarterback fast breaks.
All it would take is 8-10 fast break points per game to give this squad the edge it needs to make a deep run.
Outwork Opponents for Defensive Positioning and Rebounds
When this group works as a unit, it's as powerful as any team in the country.
The 2-3 zone is at its best when it can extend out beyond the three-point line and simultaneously prevent interior opportunities.
This tricky endeavor requires speed, communication and discipline, especially from the back line. With a shallow seven-man rotation, the Orange can't afford to get in any foul trouble.
After trapping in the short corner or extending out to shooters, the forwards must quickly recover to supply weak-side help. Beating attackers to the spot will ensure plenty of blocked shots, drawn charges and timely steals—and it also prevents unnecessary fouls.
In a zone defense, rebounding can often be tricky. When a shot goes up, it's everyone's responsibility to find a body and clear space. If the Orange want the ball more than their adversaries, their athleticism will take care of the rest.
Challenge Key Playmakers
Starting with Western Michigan's David Brown, Syracuse will be facing a slew of dangerous playmakers in the South Region. Brown buoyed his Broncos to the MAC championship with a 32-point performance, so the Orange need to make him feel uncomfortable throughout the opening game and tire him out on both ends.
The same mindset will be critical in the second round, where the Orange could face veteran floor general Aaron Craft or Dayton's committee of scorers. If they face Craft, they must prevent him from seamlessly making entry passes while simultaneously disallowing penetration.
After that, it's potential dates with Kansas, New Mexico or Stanford's triangle offense.
The bottom line is still the same: don't let your opponent get comfortable. It's worked for Syracuse in the past, and it can work for them again in 2014.
Forecasting the 'Cuse Run
So how exactly will the Orange fare in the Big Dance? Here ya go...
Round of 64 vs. Western Michigan: Syracuse will athletically overmatch the Broncos, as the 2-3 zone and offensive explosiveness of C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant will be too much for WMU to handle. Syracuse will win, 74-65.
Round of 32 vs. Ohio State: This one should be a dogfight, with the Buckeyes giving the Orange plenty of trouble, inside and out. In the end, Syracuse's defense will win a 62-58 contest.
Sweet 16 vs. Kansas: The complexion of this game could depend largely on Joel Embiid's health. If the big fella is back, 'Cuse may have its hands full. I expect Syracuse to play up to its level of competition either way, though, and grind out another nail-biter, 64-61.
Elite 8 vs. Florida: Unfortunately for Orange fans, the magic runs out here. Florida is simply too balanced and too sharp on both ends of the floor, not to mention the fact that they have ample athleticism in the frontcourt. The Gators will prevail, 70-60.