Biggest Challenges Syracuse Faces in NCAA Tourney Matchup vs. Western Michigan
March Madness is here, and Jim Boeheim could not be happier. His Syracuse team is ready to get on the floor in Buffalo and put the last month behind it.
For the first three months of the 2013-14 college basketball season, Syracuse was at the top of the heap. It was a perfect 25-0 and atop the AP rankings. Then, in what was supposed to be an automatic win at home against Boston College, everything began to unravel. The Orange lost five of their last seven games and went from being the No. 1 team in the nation to a No. 3 seed.
Syracuse can start putting the last four weeks behind it, though, and gear up for what it hopes will be a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Here are the biggest challenges that the team will face when it squares off against Western Michigan.
Player stats and information from ESPN.com
Challenge No. 5: Trying Too Hard to Erase the Last Month in the First Minutes
There is little doubt that Syracuse will come out pumped up and ready to destroy Western Michigan. The team will have tons of energy and will play with passion in the opening moments.
As much as they need to come out strong, though, the Orange do not need to attempt to erase a rough patch of seven games in the first seven minutes against the Broncos. In fact, they need to leave their five losses behind them. Nothing can be done to change those L's into W's.
Instead, the team needs to play hard, play smart and get back to being who it is: one of the best defensive teams in the nation.
As the Orange take pride in that and focus on shutting WMU down on that end of the court, the offensive end will take care of itself.
Challenge No. 4: Getting Trevor Cooney Back on Track
Trevor Cooney is an outstanding shooter who is in the middle of a slump. He is the Orange's best outside shooting threat this season, nailing 37.7 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
Over the last seven games, Cooney has only connected on 10 out of 51 shots (19.6 percent) from distance. He seems to be out of rhythm and now is pressing.
One of the best things that Syracuse can do for the 6'4" sophomore is to create some wide-open looks early in the contest against Western Michigan.
Set screens. Reverse the ball. Do whatever is needed to get him a few confidence-building shots early.
Steve Infanti, co-host of Upon Further Review on 97.7FM Syracuse, tweeted: "Trevor Cooney ended practice here in Buffalo by making seven straight rapid-fire threes. The net barely moved. Good omen for the Orange?"
Cooney is the kind of shooter who can make a huge difference, not only in Syracuse's game against Western Michigan, but in the days ahead if the team wins and advances.
Challenge No. 3: Keeping WMU's David Brown Under Wraps
David Brown is a fifth-year senior guard who can light it up. He is the Broncos' leading scorer this season, putting up 19.4 points per game (No. 32 in the nation). In WMU's last five games, he is averaging 22.4 points.
Brown went off in the Mid-American Conference Championship Game, scoring 32 while hitting 5-of-11 from beyond the arc.
One of the keys to this game will be Western Michigan's ability to deal with Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone defense.
If Brown hits some shots early, WMU will gain confidence and will be in much better shape to make a serious run at a huge upset.
While Syracuse may not make any actual adjustments to stop Brown early, the Orange need to be aware of where he is and be ready to close out on him as he is pulling up.
Challenge No. 2: Preventing the Broncos from Getting the Ball in the Lane
The Orange's 2-3 zone makes life miserable on most teams, as they trap and double-team opponents before they can get into their half-court offense.
One of the strategies to break down Syracuse's defense is to get someone the ball at the free-throw line and be able to hit shots in the lane.
On the season, the Broncos are making 54.1 percent of their two-point attempts. Double-double machine Shayne Whittington and Connar Tava (60.4 field-goal percentage) are more than capable of putting the ball in the basket in the paint.
If Syracuse is successful at making Western Michigan play from the perimeter, the Orange should have no trouble in beating the Broncos. But if WMU gets the ball inside, and it can get to the rim, anything can happen.
Challenge No. 1: Figuring out What Happens If Tyler Ennis Gets in Foul Trouble
Though he is not a one-man team, freshman point guard Tyler Ennis is the engine that makes the Orange go. His outstanding play and leadership has elevated this Syracuse team beyond where it would be without him.
Ennis is not prone to foul trouble. He had five games this season where he committed four fouls, and he fouled out of the Orange's loss to Virginia on March 1.
While he does not regularly stack up fouls, the possibility of Syracuse playing for long stretches of time without him is a scary thought.
Ennis has played 1,139 of a possible 1,280 minutes this year. The Orange have no experienced backup for him and would have to make some quick changes on the fly just to cover their bases in the event that he had to sit because of fouls.