A funny trend is developing in the Syracuse Orange’s side of the bracket so far in the NCAA Tournament.
The Butler Bulldogs will be the third consecutive mid-major opponent Syracuse will play.
Now, this mid-major label is really only by conventional definition.
What I mean by this is that the two opponents the ‘Cuse has played so far, Vermont and Gonzaga, both hail from mid-major conferences. Conferences that usually only get one bid into the NCAA tournament.
The team the Orange will face Thursday, the Butler Bulldogs, also hail from a mid-major conference by definition.
However, even though they may come from mid-major conferences, it would be hard to convince anyone that Gonzaga and Butler are still considered mid-major teams.
Vermont…that’s another story.
Yes, they both play in mid-major conferences, but both Gonzaga and Butler have such rich histories of success (much more so with Gonzaga) that it’s not really a surprise when they win against quality competition in the tournament.
So, it’s important for Syracuse to ignore the mid-major label on Butler and even more important to take the Bulldogs very, very seriously.
The Orange absolutely dominated over the previous weekend, crushing both opponents.
Wes Johnson came back to form, and the Orange showed the nation, once again, why it is a legitimate title contender.
But neither of those opponents are on the level of Butler, a team believed by some, including Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, to be a much better team than its No. 5 seed would indicate.
And, truthfully, Butler is a much better team.
Butler comes into the game with the nation’s longest winning streak at 22 games. I don’t care how good or bad of a team you are, when you’ve won 22 games in a row, you’re obviously doing something very right and have obviously figured out a way to win games.
Not only that, but you’ve provided yourself with a winning atmosphere, and have gained the experience and knowledge to be able to pull out both gritty and dominant victories.
Butler is a team that can absolutely control all aspects of the game; in fact, it excels at doing just that. No doubt the Bulldogs will be looking to slow this game to a snail’s pace.
While every team that plays Syracuse would like to do just that, no team in the tournament so far has had the discipline, experience, or players to do it like Butler has.
By playing this style of game, Butler not only limits the amount of possessions in the game, but also limits the Orange’s fast break opportunities, an aspect of the game that the Orange excel at.
So, the question is, what can Syracuse do to counter this?
Well, the first thing to look at is that type of this strategy, if employed by Butler, can surely misfire.
When teams try to slow the game down to take the opposing team out of rhythm, it can backfire and also take that team out of rhythm, which becomes an almost unexpected sabotage.
It’s possible this could happen to Butler, but that is some serious wishful thinking though.
Looking at it more realistically, the good thing for Syracuse is that it has also been one of the dominant defense squads in the nation this entire year.
The proof is in the stats.
With some rare exceptions, opposing teams are generally scoring in the '60s and '70s against the Orange and tend to shoot very low percentages.
Look at Vermont and Gonzaga for some immediate evidence.
If Butler wants to turn this game into a grind-it-out, defensive ballgame, then the Orange undoubtedly have the defense to counter that strategy effectively.
If Butler wants to try a different strategy and run-and-gun with Syracuse, the Orange will blow them out of the gym. However, I believe Butler is too smart and too well coached for that to be a viable strategy it would try to employ.
That being said, Syracuse should still relish each and every opportunity it can get to get out and run. Transition points will be key in a game that may feature very few of those points.
By doing that, Syracuse can create an up-tempo style of basketball and hope that Butler falls into the trap,
Whatever strategy is employed by the Bulldogs and the Orange, there is still a major, lingering concern for Syracuse.
Concern, thy name is Arinze Onuaku.
The dominant senior center will once again be a no-go, missing his third straight tournament game.
He hasn’t even practiced since March 11th, and it’s appearing more and more likely that he may not be back for the entire tournament.
Once again, the burden is going to be on the front line for Syracuse. Wes Johnson needs to continue to assert himself, not only offensively, but on the boards as well.
Once again, we should expect to see freshman Dashonte Riley in the game at some points for Syracuse.
Riley’s a big enough player to provide a decent big body for Syracuse, and he played pretty well on defense over the previous weekend.
However, with the exception of one outstanding pass to Brandon Triche in the Gonzaga game, when Riley is in, the offense is almost playing four on five basketball.
Riley doesn’t have the post moves to score yet, and as evidenced by his hideous air ball, his jump shot isn’t there either.
While it isn’t traditional four on five basketball, because you obviously can’t leave him wide open for layups, he still isn’t expected to score even a single point.
The scoring burden is on all four of the other players, and against a solid defensive, ball-controlling team like Butler, that burden becomes greater.
However, the confidence has to be high for Syracuse.
Everyone was questioning how the ’Cuse could win without Arinze.
Orange Nation was more than happy to see Syracuse step up the challenge though, and not only win, but absolutely dominate.
Once again the Orange rose to the occasion.
It has reverberated through almost every article I’ve written: This team steps it up when it needs to. It defies negative expectations and plays surprisingly dominant basketball.
All that being said, I’m not sure if I can see Syracuse dominating Butler like it has so many other teams. It’s just too hard to picture doing that to a team that is very good and has won 22 straight games.
However, Syracuse doesn’t have to dominate. I see the Orange playing an effective and efficient game, playing fast when it can, and pulling out a win, 74-65.
The nation’s longest winning streak will come to an end and the Orange will advance to the Elite Eight.
That’s when the real, collective Orange Nation “uh oh” is likely to be heard.
If Syracuse beats Butler, and if Kansas St. beats Xavier (as it definitely should), then the No. 1 vs. No 2 matchup would be set for the right to go to the Final Four.
That’s when the sweat will really start to pour for Orange Nation.
It’s safe to say that Orange fans everywhere will be rooting harder for Xavier than they ever have before.
Let’s get by Butler first.