Syracuse Basketball: Keys for Each Starter in Matchup vs. Western Michigan
After bowing out in its first-ever ACC tournament game, the Syracuse men's basketball team earned a No. 3 seed in the South Region of the NCAA tournament.
The Orange will face off with the No. 14 seed Western Michigan Broncos at 2:45 p.m. ET in Buffalo on Thursday. The Broncos finished the season 23-9 and won the MAC tournament.
Normally, most people would use a pen to advance any No. 3 seed over a No. 14. But with how unpredictable the field is this year and how Syracuse has limped into the dance, the Orange cannot overlook the Broncos.
Syracuse's 2-3 zone will not surprise WMU as the Broncos faced Eastern Michigan, a team Syracuse also played, twice in conference play this year. The Broncos split the season series with the Eagles. Under former Orange assistant Rob Murphy, the Eagles play a zone similar to the Orange's.
With the way Syracuse has been playing lately, it cannot take the Broncos for granted. Syracuse has to bring its A-game if it wants to advance to the Round of 32.
With the Orange only going about seven deep into their rotation, the starters will see the majority of the action.
So what does the starting unit have to do to lead the team to a victory? Read on to discover some keys for each Orange starter.
Key No. 1: Continue to make good decisions
As the point guard, Tyler Ennis is in control of the offense and the Orange's scoring hinges on Ennis' play. The Orange are best in transition, so Ennis has to know when to start the break and when it is better to slow it down.
Ennis has to get C.J. Fair, Trevor Cooney and Jerami Grant the ball in perfect spots, and if Rakeem Christmas gets deep post position, Ennis has to feed the big man to get him going. If Christmas feels like he's involved on the offensive end, that will make him even more committed on defense.
When the Orange scored 74 points on Florida State on March 9, that was the first (and still only) time they have broken 70 since they put up 91 on Duke on Feb. 1. Western Michigan averages 73 a game, so scoring 55 or 60 may not be enough for the Orange.
Key No. 2: Stay locked in on defense
Western Michigan has a dangerous scoring threat in point guard David Brown. Brown, the 6'4" senior, averages 19.4 points a night and hung 32 on Toledo in the MAC title game on only 16 shots. Brown was 5-of-11 from three in that game as well.
David Drew of the Kalamazoo Gazette told Chris McManus of ESPN Radio in Syracuse that Brown has unlimited range from deep and is not afraid to take any shot from any distance. Ennis will have to know where Brown is at all times to keep him from going off.
I'm willing to bet you already know what the main key is for Trevor Cooney.
The kid HAS to make some shots to light a fire under his team. Cooney's struggles have been well documented to this point, so there's no need to go over his numbers again.
If Cooney comes out and hits a few threes early, it can do wonders for his confidence. Not only that, his teammates will be so jacked up for him that it will make them want to play even harder. That momentum could also carry Cooney and the rest of the Orange deeper into the tournament should they advance past WMU.
Cooney also has to stay alert at the top of the zone. He can't fall asleep and allow Brown to step into any open shots.
C.J. Fair has to put the last game behind him.
In the ACC tournament against N.C. State, Fair managed just nine points on a putrid 3-of-16 shooting. Fair actually only made one shot from any significant distance as two of those field goals game on dunks.
Fair's tough shooting night was one of the main reasons the Orange failed to get past the Wolfpack. He missed a lot of jumpers and floaters he normally makes, and with Cooney struggling, Ennis and Grant could only do so much to pick up the slack.
Fair's night in Greensboro was the exception rather than the rule, so it's hard to imagine him turning in two rough nights in a row.
But if Fair struggles out of the gate Thursday, he can't let thoughts of last week creep into his mind. He's got to keep playing his game, try not to force the action and trust that he will find his stroke. He's the wood in the fire that is the Orange offense; without him, nothing will ignite.
This is Fair's last go-around in the NCAA tournament. You can rest assured he will do everything he can to avoid an early exit.
Key No. 1: Stay active inside
Jerami Grant has the potential to dominate any game with his athletic ability. WMU's Shayne Whittington, a 6'11" senior, is the team's leading rebounder at 9.1 a game. It will be up to Grant to keep the big man off the offensive glass.
If Whittington is allowed to run wild on the boards, he can get easy putbacks or kick it out to open shooters. The zone allows ample opportunity to crash the offensive boards, so Grant has to use his athleticism to help clean the glass.
Key No. 2: Put pressure on the defense
On the other end, Grant has to be sure the defense works as hard as it can to stop him. The Broncos work with a short rotation, just like Syracuse, having only seven players that see 10 minutes or more a game. In fact, the Broncos essentially only played six guys in the MAC title game. Those six saw at least 18 minutes, with the next highest total being seven.
If Grant can get loose inside, he can create foul trouble for the Broncos. And if he causes Whittington to have to take an early seat, that only helps the Orange more. Racking up fouls can also lead to more opportunities at the free-throw line, which is a good way to get easy points.
Rakeem Christmas' main goal should really be to just stay in the game.
Christmas hasn't seen 30 minutes in a game since the overtime loss to Boston College on Feb. 19. The main reason is Christmas seems to pick up his second foul before the fans can even get to their seats from the concession stand.
While Baye Keita is a serviceable defensive replacement for Christmas, he is not an offensive threat in the least. Christmas at least has a chance to get buckets. With the offense struggling like it has, the Orange need all the points they can get.
Christmas can't go for the first shot fake and hack shooters as soon as they bring it in the paint. He's got to stay on his feet until the shot actually goes up and then use is athletic ability to turn the shot away.
And on the offensive end, Christmas has to work to get good post position if the matchup is favorable. If the Orange are running, he's got to run the floor with them and head straight to the rim to look for an easy transition opportunity.
Even though he would be running from under the other basket, he can still trail the play and give Ennis another option on the break. If he catches the ball at the free-throw line with a running start, no one will want to get in his way.