Indiana vs. Syracuse: 5 Keys for Hoosiers to Win Sweet 16 Showdown
Not many schools are as steeped in NCAA basketball postseason tradition as Indiana and Syracuse. It's quite surprising, then, that the last time the teams faced each other in the NCAA tournament was the immortal 1987 National Championship Game.
Thursday night, the two schools will finally wage a rematch that's more than a quarter-century in the making when they tip off in a Sweet 16 matchup at Washington, D.C.'s Verizon Center.
While Syracuse crushed Montana and held Cal at arm's length to reach this point, IU was running away with its opener against James Madison and rallying to win a virtual brawl with Temple.
What can the Hoosiers do to ensure another win, preferably a less stressful one than the late-game victory over Temple? Let's examine five angles that can turn the tide red instead of orange.
Abrupt Ball Movement
Every Syracuse player to average more than 10 minutes per game—and there are nine of them—stands 6'4" or taller.
Contrast that with an IU rotation featuring only seven 10-MPG players, including a pair of guys who stand six feet even, give or take a New York City phone book.
Indiana's passing decisions will need to be quick and decisive, keeping the ball moving ahead of the rotations of Syracuse's iconic 2-3 zone.
If the Hoosiers' passes are quick and crisp enough, openings can certainly be found for Cody Zeller to operate inside. Cal bigs Richard Solomon and Robert Thurman shot a combined 11-of-19 against Syracuse in their matchup, and the Bears as a team hit better than 50 percent of their two-point shots.
Of course, if the zone is packed to contain Zeller, then we all know the Hoosiers can turn elsewhere get their points.
See the Three, Be the Three
Walking (or should we say running?) hand in hand with the quick ball movement will be the Hoosiers ability to score from outside the three-point arc.
In three of IU's last four games, the Hoosiers—a team that shot around 42 percent from three during the regular season—have are shooting 32 percent (23-of-70) from deep in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
One has to expect there's a hot shooting game in the offing, especially from a team with four guys who hit better than 43 percent from deep on the season. It may not seem like it to IU fans, whose recent laments about poor shooting have become mantras, but Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls, Victor Oladipo, Remy Abell and Will Sheehey all have been ever-present threats throughout the year.
The Orange stifled California's stellar backcourt of Justin Cobbs and Allen Crabbe, holding them to 5-of-18 from the floor. Cal made only four of its 21 three-point tries, but as mentioned on the last slide, its bigs were able to find traction.
Syracuse should begin the game cognizant of Cody Zeller inside, so the shooters will need to find the range early and often to give the Big Handsome room to operate.
MCW: Mistakes Cause Wins (for Opponents)
At 6'6", Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams has a pronounced height advantage on Indiana's backcourt duo of Yogi Ferrell and Jordan Hulls. MCW is a matchup problem for nearly every guard in America, but he occasionally gives his own fans and coaches just as many ulcers as opponents.
In six of the Orange's eight losses this season, Carter-Williams either shot less than 33.3 percent from the floor or posted a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. In Syracuse's first three defeats this season, he shot a combined 10-of-46 (21.7 percent).
Over Syracuse's past six games, MCW has dished more assists (48) than he's taken field-goal tries (37). That's a trend that bodes well for the Orange, and one that Jim Boeheim would love to continue.
IU may dare Carter-Williams to hit his outside shots early, and it's not a foolish strategy to consider. The last time MCW made multiple threes in a game at better than a 33-percent success rate was back on Feb. 10 against St. John's. In the 14 games since, he's 5-of-24 from deep.
The Hoosiers need Carter-Williams to force either bad passes or bad shots. He's averaging 4.6 turnovers per game over his last five contests, and some strong defensive pressure from a committee led by Victor Oladipo should help him get close to that figure on Thursday.
Take Second Chances, but Give None in Return
Offensive rebounding has been a staple of IU's success for most of the season. The Hoosiers rank seventh in America at 38.3 percent on the offensive glass.
Syracuse, for its part, is only at 68 percent on the defensive glass, ranking 253rd in the nation according to TeamRankings.com. The Orange has been held below 62.5 percent defensive rebounding 12 times this season. They've split those games evenly—six up and six down.
For a team like Indiana, those second shots would be manna from heaven. Of course, Syracuse would love to see some mulligans on its possessions, too.
The Orange sit directly next to IU in those offensive rebounding rankings, and the Hoosiers have demonstrated that they can be beaten soundly on that end.
For Indiana to control the glass, it will need Cody Zeller and Christian Watford to fight like their hair is on fire from the opening tip. It will need Oladipo to chase down any long carom that comes within 10 feet of him.
The Syracuse zone is vulnerable to offensive rebounds. Zeller in particular will need to feast on those opportunities when they come.
The Indiana coaching staff will have to make some tough decisions regarding matchups against all those long, tall Orange men.
Who guards C.J. Fair and James Southerland?
Who does Victor Oladipo check?
Can the 6'0" Jordan Hulls rattle the 6'4" Brandon Triche? If not, does he lose substantial minutes to Will Sheehey?
Is the occasional IU zone reliable enough to slow the Orange if it's employed on a regular basis?
Syracuse's offense isn't rolling right now—its win over Montana was only the second time in 11 games that the Orange shot better than 50 percent from the floor.
Still, players like Fair, Southerland and Triche are capable of pouring in 20 if Tom Crean and his assistants can't get the right guy in each man's face.
Look for Sheehey and Jeremy Hollowell to see more minutes, with the Hoosiers minimizing possessions where Hulls and Yogi Ferrell play together. The added length will be needed to interfere both with passing lanes, as well as driving opportunities for both Carter-Williams and Fair.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.