After Kansas lost to Northern Iowa in the first day of second-round play, attention rightly shifted Syracuse's way. And the Orange capitalized on the attention, stomping a good Gonzaga team 87-65 to advance to the Sweet 16.
The Orange dominated the first two rounds without Arinze Onuaku, getting a career-high 31 points and 14 rebounds from forward Wes Johnson along with 24 points from senior guard Andy Rautins on Sunday.
Onuaku may come back for the Sweet 16 matchup against Butler, and should drastically improve this Syracuse team in their quest for the National Championship should he join the lineup.
Butler, Syracuse's opponent in the next round, had a more testy matchup against upstart and very capable Murray State, but clamped down in the end of the game to the tune of a 7-2 run and 54-52 victory.
Murray State, like UTEP, was supposed to exploit Butler with their immense athleticism. In fact, "We got beat on the glass 39-22," Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens said. "They shot 9-for-14 from three, and we shot 36 percent from the field. I'm still trying to figure out how the heck we won."
Butler found a way to win, though good teams do. Butler's will to win has justified all of the hype they got preseason, and makes this Sweet 16 matchup one to watch.
This Thursday matchup in Salt Lake City matches up like-for-like, experience-for-experience, balance-with-balance, hype-with-hype, and talent-with-talent. While Syracuse is more athletic than Butler, this rendition of the NCAA tournament has shown us that superior athleticism isn't going to win games alone.
Butler's not an underdog anymore, and shouldn't be perceived as one. Expect Syracuse and Butler to engage in a graceful, beautiful dogfight of a game. This one will be a close game between two of the best teams in the tournament.
Maybe I'm totally wrong; maybe Syracuse will dominate the Bulldogs, or vice versa. Nonetheless, I will be looking for some things going into the game, as this slideshow will mention.
Jim Boeheim revealed after his team's Gonzaga win that he kept Butler in the top-10 of his coaches' ballot throughout the season—Boeheim isn't buying any of the talk that his Orange team will easily defeat the Bulldogs.
When Butler dropped two quick games to Minnesota and Clemson early, the analysts that praised the Bulldogs' tough non-conference schedule and criticized the team's relevance.
Boeheim, the coach of Butler's next opponent, wasn't one of those guys, and should be commended for respecting this Butler team through its early thick-and-thins. He knows full well what Butler can do to his championship dreams, and will plan accordingly to advance to the Elite Eight.
Meanwhile, Butler recognizes that their opponent has been the top-ranked team in the nation for a substantial amount of time. No questions about respect here.
Butler's ball-screen motion and shooting against Syracuse's size and zone defense is the key style matchup to watch.
It's undoubtedly possible for Butler to shoot the lights out of the ball and sweep to victory, although Butler on a good day will struggle to overcome Syracuse's sheer size and defensive intelligence.
The obvious solution to Syracuse's matchup zone defense is a good shooting performance, which Butler is more than capable of putting up. However, what will be more prominent: Butler's shooting or Syracuse's balance?
The efficiency statistics show that both Butler and Syracuse are excellent on offense. Both rank highly on points per possession and the defensive counterpart. Nonetheless, as you would expect when a No. 1 seed from a major conference takes on a No. 5 seed from a mid-major conference, the win odds are stacked heavily in the Orange's favor.
However, Butler is more composed and more talented than the typical mid-major; they are a powerful team that has a distinct identity. The team plays "the Butler Way" by taking care of the ball, looking for open teammates, crashing the boards, and contesting every shot.
Butler not only plays at 120 percent the entire game, but a smart 120 percent. Will this be enough, however, to counter the theoretical simulations of the game? The styles of play alone point to Syracuse winning the game. I trust an extremely balanced in-out game with superior talent over a shooting-contingent offense, but something tells me Butler is better than we expect them to be.
This is March Madness, and the games are played for a reason. Butler's might just do something.
- Depends on how Butler shoots.
Guard play carries teams toward victory and sustained postseason success. The Syracuse and Butler guards are no exception to this phenomenon—Rautins and Hayward are superb college talents.
Overall, the guard play in this Sweet 16 matchup should be superb.
For Syracuse, Jardine and Rautins are both savvy guards. The former has all the scoring talent in the world, while the latter has developed an amazing basketball savvy. Jardine's ability to score from the perimeter should be something to watch in the game. The Syracuse guards move well enough to enable good in-out play and good offensive efficiency.
For Butler, Mack and Nored provide good scoring relief for Hayward and Howard. If those two players are able to hit threes when called upon, Butler can very well take the game. The shooting ability of the guards compliment Hayward's all-around play-making ability.
The key guard matchup is comprised of each team's best player—one of the players is a bona fide NBA prospect—while the other is the prototypical strong college guard and team leader.
Syracuse would seemingly have that NBA prospect, right? And Butler with that smart, experienced guard who can make plays when called upon, just like every other good mid-major team?
In this matchup, you'd be wrong thinking as such. Which is why I tell you that Butler has the advantage in this matchup, and this game (perhaps).
I'm infatuated with Gordon Hayward, plain and simple with no slight to the amazing Rautins. Hayward is athletic, has size for the college level (6'8" for a college 2-4), plays defense, can shoot lights out (84 percent FT), can handle the ball, can drive and dish, and wins.
However, Hayward has been knocked for his lack of physicality, so we should watch how tight the Syracuse defenders check and bother Hayward.
Nonetheless, while Rautins may be the player that makes the Syracuse machine run, Hayward is the player than will dictate the result of this game.
- Depends on the style of play the game encapsulates. If Butler is able to get its wings in positions to catch-and-shoot, then Butler will have the advantage. Hayward is one of the best players on the floor, if not the best.
Guards win games, big men win championships. The ability for a team to rely on a great big man in the clutch (as a crutch) is an amazing boost for any team. Often this matchup is what separates mid-major teams from high-major teams in the late stages of the NCAA Tournament, since the bigger teams can assert their physical dominance and dictate tempo and game control.
Syracuse, in addition, has quality big men in Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson who can score points and play good defense.
Butler's lack of size should then theoretically be exploited by Syracuse. While it truly could play out that way, I don't think Butler's going to give up on the interior game so easily.
Butler's two best players, Hayward and Matt Howard, are both 6'8" and are big enough to challenge in the post. Howard, should he avoid foul trouble (which isn't a given), will be able to pester Syracuse's bigs.
I believe that Syracuse will establish a good inside presence during the game. Whether or not Butler will be able to dampen this presence through good defense or good shooting on the offensive end is unknown.
Butler, as a mid-major, has a glimmer of hope in regards to its bigs. George Mason had one viable big man in their run to the Final Four, Jai Lewis. Although Lewis wasn't the most talented player, he performed well enough to contribute to his team's cause and compliment the rest of George Mason's offensive efforts.
Assuming Butler shoots well (which they will need to do to compete in the game), Hayward has an amazing size advantage over his guard matchups that should allow him to drive to the hoop. This Howard-Hayward combo should mitigate the overall advantage Syracuse's bigs possess.
- Syracuse, although it's not as big of a gap as you would think.
The Butler offense will rely on a rigid dichotomy of threes or inside post/dribble-drive. They will fervently avoid challenged mid-range shots and will admittedly lack offensive creativity. In the two tournament games Butler has played so far, only 15 of Butler’s 100 field goal attempts have been long two-pointers (national average is around 33 percent.).
Against the lengthy Syracuse zone, Butler's offensive tendencies will probably lean towards a dependence on threes. Like mid-major (and talent-inferior) teams at this stage, the threes going in as an assumption to any sort of Butler success.
Syracuse is more dominant physically and should be able to overcome and defend Butler ball-screens. Will this drastically affect Butler's offense though?
Nonetheless, Butler has turned in many defensive performances over the last half of the season. This should help Butler keep up with Syracuse should their offense struggle a bit.
Syracuse, on the other hand, should be able to assert itself on the offensive end. Syracuse's greatest offensive asset is its balance, and the Butler defenders won't be able to stop alternative scoring options with great effectiveness.
I do believe that Syracuse will look at its last few games and utilize its size, although I'm sure Butler will prepare for that.
Just as a general disclaimer: Butler was a preseason Final Four pick for me, and is one of my teams in the Final Four for most of my brackets.
So I am biased and rooting HARD for Butler.
Nonetheless, I see the game either of two ways:
- Syracuse will exploit their athletic advantage and offensive strengths; they will score when Butler can't. The Orange will pull away, put Butler in desperation shooting-threes mode, and win comfortably. That score will be 68-51 Syracuse.
- Or, Butler will make this game a testy, knockdown-drag out matchup. The threes will fall; 'Cuse will be frustrated; and Hayward will make things happen in the clutch. 58-54 Butler.