Syracuse is coming off of two woodshed games against the likes of Gonzaga and Vermont. Vermont was a No. 16 seed afterthought and Gonzaga lacked the requisite physicality in the paint to compete with Syracuse.
Plus, Syracuse shot the eye out of the basketball. When the Orange do that, they’re tough to compete with, even if star post Arinze Onuaku is out, which he will be again against Butler.
As for the Bulldogs of Butler, they struggled against UTEP’s athleticism before running away with that opening-round ballgame using dead-eye shooting of their own in the second half.
Against Murray State, Butler had to go to a small lineup with star wing Gordon Hayward as the 5, surrounding him with four guards. After the switch, which gave them the quickness to compete with the Racers, the Bulldogs reeled off 10 straight points and battled back to beat Murray State by a bucket thanks to that small lineup.
The path each team has taken respectively has to concern you if you’re a Bulldog fan, however. Syracuse puts a long, athletic team on the floor and has shot the ball well so far this tournament. Butler has struggled with two fairly athletic teams that haven’t played all that well on the perimeter. UTEP was 4-of-18 from deep and Murray State had 16 turnovers.
Syracuse’s backcourt of Andy Rautins, Scoop Jardine, and Wesley Johnson will play better. Count on it.
As for Butler’s problem with its opening-round opponent's athleticism, I’ll say this: I’m not a big proponent of historical performance being a huge predictor of future results, but the athletic matchup indicators don’t portend of good things for the Bulldogs.
Keep in mind, here are the components teams need to beat the Syracuse Orangemen, and remember that Hayward and Matt Howard comprise probably the least athletic frontcourt playing in the tournament currently.
First and foremost, a team has to have athletic size that can compete on the glass. If you don’t have big, athletic frontcourt players that can close out defensive possessions with boards above the rim, Syracuse will wear you down on the backboards.
On offense, the team looking to upset the Orangemen has to have athletes that can challenge and finish at the rim against the veritable phalanx of Orange frontcourt players. Even with Onuaku injured, Rick Jackson, Johnson, and Kris Joseph are all terrific above the rim defenders and rebounders.
In fact, Syracuse designs its defense to take away perimeter offense in an effort to funnel smaller perimeter players to the rim to face these monsters. Most guards and forwards are too small to finish over the large back line of Syracuse’s zone, with the result often being a blocked shot, contested shot, and/or turnover.
With the arc and the rim taken away, guard-centric or smaller teams struggle to find offense, especially when it comes in the form of uncomfortable mid-range shots.
You have to have big athletic forwards that go to dunk the rock against the Syracuse zone. Plus, your guards and wings must be big enough to shoot over the top of the zone or adept at feathery mid-range jumpers that will be available all game long.
Keys for Butler
The Bulldogs likely won’t win the battle of the boards, so they have to make up for the possession deficit by turning over a Syracuse club that lacks elite guard play. The problem for Butler is that they don’t play much pressure-styled defense, but instead they’re used to playing sound, stay-in-front man-to-man defense.
Well, yes—yes, it is. Especially for Butler, because its margin for error becomes small when it can’t turn the Orange over and can’t steal possessions on the offensive glass.
The Bulldogs must shoot it as well against Syracuse as they did against UTEP in the second half to win this ballgame.
3. Gordon Hayward
The stud forward for the Bulldogs has to be a star in this game. He can’t defer and he can’t play poorly if the Bulldogs want to win.
They lack the star power. Hayward will be allowed to take as many open 15-footers as he likes, but he’ll be challenged everywhere else, especially at the rim.
On defense, Hayward will be charged with guarding Joseph, who’s an explosive athlete. Hayward has to be careful and stay out of foul trouble because he’s really the only other capable frontcourt scorer outside of Howard, and certainly the only player that can challenge Syracuse’s athletes at the rim.
Keys for Syracuse
1. Identify Shooters
Shelvin Mack went a ridiculous 7-for-9 from distance to shoot the UTEP Miners out of the tournament. Teammate Zack Hahn was a sniper off the bench against not only UTEP but Murray State as well.
Everyone else for Butler was frigid, including Hayward, who is 3-of-12 from deep so far this tournament. If I’m Jim Boeheim, I game my zone to close out on Mack and Hahn and entice jumpers from everyone else.
2. Establish Rick Jackson
Jackson is a really nice back-to-the-basket player for the Orange, and he’s much stronger than Howard. So far opposing postmen Ivan Aska and Derrick Caracter are 13-for-18 from the field against Butler’s smallish frontcourt.
If Syracuse can find a way to include Jackson on virtually every possession, I’m not sure Howard can stay out of foul trouble.
3. Value the Basketball
If you’ve endured the article to this point, you probably get the feeling that the Orangemen can overwhelm Butler on the glass.
If so, your vibe is exactly right. Other than simply shooting their way to the Elite Eight, the Bulldogs must find a way to make up possessions that they’ll surely lose on the glass, which means the Orangemen should win, all else being equal, if they just protect the basketball.
If the Bulldogs can’t force turnovers, Butler will need a heroic shooting effort to beat the Orange.
I really like Syracuse here, and not because they’ve played so well to this point.
I like the Orange mainly because Butler has looked so pedestrian thus far in the tournament. The Bulldogs lack athleticism and size in the frontcourt, and that makes it doubly tough on their guards, who’ll be facing the most unique defense they’ve played all season.
I’ll take the 'Cuse to advance.
Kevin writes the leading college hoops blog March To March.
Follow him on Twitter: @MarchToMarch