Syracuse Orange Breakdown: The Path To The Final Four

Adam McNerneyContributor IMarch 16, 2010

Vermont? Seriously?

That had to be a joke. That team’s name did not just flash on the screen as the first matchup for the NCAA tournament’s west region No. 1 seed Syracuse.

Alas, it was not a joke, although it may have been comical for the selection committee.

No amount of eye rubbing or gasping could make it go away. The Orange will take on the 16 seeded catamounts on Friday.

Why is this little school, from the state notorious for its maple syrup, such a concern?

It’s assured that anyone who bleeds Orange knows the answer to this question.

For anybody else whose sporting lives don’t revolve around the delicious fruit, the last time this Vermont team was in the tournament, in 2005 as a 13 seed, it upset fourth seeded Syracuse.

That was a Syracuse team that featured an All-American and the Big East Player of the year in Hakim Warrick.

That was a team that featured a now legendary figure in all of Syracuse athletics, with Gerry McNamara.

A team that some analysts had in their final four that year and rightfully so. That Orange team was a very solid team, and appeared to have all the parts necessary for a deep run.

Vermont guard T.J. Sorrentine made sure that didn’t happen though, as he drilled dagger three-pointers throughout the course of the game.

The similarities from that year to this year are all oddly there too.

This is a Syracuse team with a potential All-American and the Big East player of the Year (The first Orangeman to claim that honor since that very Hakim Warrick) in Wes Johnson.

It’s a solid team that absolutely can make a deep run (Although a lot of that depends on a certain muscle in Arinze Onuaku’s thigh).

However, the similarities end there. This is not the same Vermont team, and no one on its roster played in that infamous game in 2005.

Vermont’s brilliant head coach even retired after that season. Do you suppose that the former Vermont coach, and now ESPN college basketball analyst, Tom Brennan is picking his 16th seeded Catamounts this Friday?

This year’s Vermont team is a team that The Orange should have no trouble dominating, even if the reports are true that Syracuse center Arinze Onuaku may not play during the opening weekend games.

And if nothing else, it’s a chance for revenge. It’s a chance for CBS to run endless replays of Sorrentine and Taylor Coppenrath personally nailing the final stakes into Orange fan’s hearts.

Maybe the selection committee has a sick sense of humor after all.

Assuming that this won ‘t be the first year in NCAA tournament history that a No. 16 seed upsets a No. 1  seed, we’re going to break down the rest of the tournament (with the exception of the Final Four) for The Orange.

Before we start that though, it’s important to note the situation with Arinze Onuaku.

Although we were told that he was fine in a press release that SU Athletics released last week, it appears now that he’s not so fine.

He won’t practice for the majority of this week, and is likely a no-go for the Friday or Sunday games the Orange will play this weekend.

The Orange can make it out of the first weekend without him, but Orange Nation better hope he’s playing when the second weekend of the tournament comes around.

If he’s not, the Final Four may just be a nice afterthought.

From all that I’ve gathered, he should be able to go by that second weekend. So, we’ll cautiously assume (Yes, I know what assuming does) for the rest of this article that he is going to play that second weekend and beyond.  

All the Vermont joking aside, The Orange should have no trouble beating that team handily.

Potential second round opponent Gonzaga would be an interesting matchup.

The Bulldog’s head coach Mark Few has a great basketball mind, and the ‘Zags always seem to figure out a way to do big things in the tournament when not much is expected out of them.

I would be more worried about Gonzaga than Florida State. If not for any other reason, than because the whole universe seems to always rally around the Bulldogs when they have a chance pull an epic upset in the tournament.

And although The Orange could, and should, beat Gonzaga, the final score is always unpredictable when playing the Bulldogs come March Madness.  

Two other teams that could provide serious trouble for Syracuse are Pittsburgh and Kansas St.

Pitt already beat The Orange in the two clubs only meeting this year, and it did so by playing an almost perfect game.

Pitt, much like Louisville, has had Syracuse’s number for quite some time.

The style of play the Panther’s bring to the table is perfect for disrupting a team like Syracuse, which works best when it’s playing efficiently. Pitt excels at disrupting that kind of efficiency.

Orange blood would be boiling if the Panthers were able to knock out The Orange.

Kansas St. is a similar team to Pitt, if not even better.

The Wildcats play very physical, play lights out defense, and are lead by a coach whose furiousness may not be matched by any other coach this year.

Kansas St. also has some legitimate playmakers and it highlights a group of No. 2 seeds that may be the most dangerous group ever.

Not to mention, if Syracuse and Kansas St. met, it would be for the right to go to the final four (This also applies to Pittsburgh).

SU would absolutely have to bring its A-game and would have to seriously man-up and play real physical basketball to beat that team.

With those two teams in mind, it’s also completely possible for any team in SU’s side of the bracket to get hot and pull some upsets.

Shoot, it’s almost a guarantee that happens every year.

However, those two teams highlighted above will provide the biggest challenge for The Orange, should it advance to play either of them.

So, what does Syracuse need to do to make the path to the Final Four as pothole free as possible?

First and foremost, they can’t beat themselves.

This goes without saying, and is usually the modus operandi for any team in the tournament.

But, frustratingly, Orange Nation has seen it all year long.

They’ve seen it in the four losses the ‘Cuse has suffered and have even seen it in some of the close games that really shouldn’t have been close (Cough*DePaul*Cough).

The ‘Cuse repeatedly shot itself in the foot in those games.

The most prevalent issue has been the turnovers, and the two biggest suspects are both players who otherwise have played fantastic years.

Yes, we’re looking in your direction Scoop Jardine and Andy Rautins.

It’s hard to rag on Rautins, because he does so many great things for Syracuse.

He’s the most important player on this team, which is an even bigger reason that he should not consistently lead the team in the darkest category in all of sports.


Unforced, ugly turnovers.

Rautins’ passing game is light years ahead of where it has been during his career, and his passes can really be on the money a lot of times (Evidenced by the Georgetown game in the Big East Tournament, where he had 10 assists).

But sometimes he tries to force it a little too much.

Sometimes he’ll try and throw a pass that really isn’t there. This leads to fast breaks, easy points, and big-time momentum by the opposing squad.

Then, there are passes where he just seems to have a mind-fart.

Those passes are frequently lazy, too high or don’t have enough zip on them.

These unforced errors absolutely have to be fixed by Rautins.

Good teams, and especially teams in the tournament, will thrive off easy turnovers and will eat The Orange alive, spitting out the pulp afterwards.

Scoop has some of the same issues, mainly in the forced passes department.

Sometimes he tries to fast-break when there’s really nothing there.

That usually ends with either a bad pass by him or an ugly, forced layup amongst the bigs.

The good thing is that these are very fixable flaws.

The rest of the team will follow suit if these two can keep their turnovers to a minimum.

The great SU team we all watched this year was so great because when it played its best basketball, it played efficiently and limited its turnovers.

It blew out Villanova by only committing a single turnover in the second half.

That’s the offensively efficient team that needs to show up come tournament time.

Second, and equally as important, the trademark Syracuse 2-3 zone has got to be better than it has been any other time this year.

And that’s saying a lot.

The Orange have been one of the best defensive teams in the country this whole season. The 2-3 zone has never been so active, so long, and so athletic.

A Syracuse team has never been so dedicated to playing it as effectively as it has played it for the duration of this season.

A dead horse has been beaten more than once with everybody noting that teams in the tournament won’t be familiar with the zone, and that unfamiliarity will be good enough by itself to win games.

However, that unfamiliarity won’t, by itself, win the game for Syracuse.

The zone does indeed work so well in the tournament because teams aren’t used to it, but more importantly, teams are not used to game planning for it.

For most teams, at least those outside of the Big East, the zone defense is not something they see at all during the regular season.  And if they do, it’s nowhere near as good or complex as the one Jim Boeheim has in place.

More importantly, the zone defenses they may see are never as fundamentally crucial to team success or as dedicated as Boeheim's zone.

Throughout the regular season, most, if not all, teams in the country prepare for a man-to-man defense. Those team’s offensive schemes are exclusively designed to exploit the man-to-man.

So when a coach is preparing for the Syracuse 2-3 zone come tournament time, and when the zone is as good as it has been this year, it becomes that much more of a challenge.

The offensive game-plan has to change considerably, and suddenly, new schemes have to quickly be put into place to try and beat the zone as best as possible.

And in the NCAA tournament, those schemes have to be learned lightning fast.

If you’re Louisville, your game plan against the zone is to shoot 40 three-pointers and count on a relative nobody coming off the bench and putting up astronomical numbers.

The strategy, obviously, is not very sound.

Almost unimaginably, it worked for Louisville twice this year, but it’s hard to imagine it having much more success.

The point is, when you’re a head coach who may only have one day, or one week, to completely overhaul the entire offensive scheme that got you into the tournament in the first place, it becomes very hard to effectively prepare to attack a zone.

Especially when Syracuse’s zone is as good as it has been all season.

For this unfamiliarity to really have an impact though, the zone has to be good.

It has to be solid, the players have to be dedicated and the intensity must be through the roof.

And for Syracuse, in this 2010 version of one of the greatest tournaments in the known universe, the intensity has got to be there every game, starting with Vermont.

Teams are going to not only have to be unfamiliar with the zone, but scared of it too.

The Zone was a primary reason The Orange won it all in 2003, and it’s absolutely going to have to be a prime reason if it wants to win it again this year.

As is the case with all of the No. 1 seeds in this year’s tournament, opposing teams are going to have to play extremely good basketball to beat Syracuse.

However, The Orange isn’t as full of raw, NBA caliber talent like those other No. 1 seeds are.

This is even more of a reason why it needs to play as efficiently as possible, while at the same time executing the 2-3 zone as best as possible.

You wouldn’t be telling anyone anything surprising if you told them this team won’t get by on talent alone.

Cut back on turnovers and play a sound defense? Sounds a little too easy doesn’t it?

It sounds so easy because Syracuse has played that well this year.

This Orange team is one of the ultimate examples of true team basketball.

The players really get whatever it is that Boeheim has taught them, and have, for the most part, executed those teachings flawlessly.

That’s why bad turnovers and poor defense can be so devastating to this team.

It doesn’t just affect one player; it affects the whole chemistry of the team.

When teams have been able to disrupt that chemistry this year, they have either beaten The Orange or made it an excruciatingly close game.

The Orange cannot allow that to happen if it wants to advance to its fourth Final Four under Jim Boeheim.

Beyond that, though, it becomes pretty murky.

It’s obviously way too early to be able to accurately predict which teams are going to be in the Final Four this year.

And if The Orange is fortunate enough to make it there, it’s tough to tell whom its opponent would be.

However, all odds are on Kansas. The best overall No. 1 seed would be the first team the ‘Cuse would meet in the final four.

Whoever won that game on Saturday would claim the right for a chance to cut down the nets the following Monday.

There’s not much point in speculating about the Final Four opponent.  And the Final Four itself is such a huge event that it becomes an entirely different entity than the rest of the tournament.

So we won’t speculate about that yet. If The Orange does make it that far, we will speculate then.

This article is meant to show how The Orange can get to the Final Four alone, and some of the few flaws that, if exposed, would doom them in that quest.

To close, we’ll look at the three possible scenarios and the predictions from those scenarios.

Scenario one: Arinze Onuaku is healthy for the sweet sixteen and on, The Orange play the great basketball we’ve seen from them time and time again this season, and the majority of the stupid mental stakes are eliminated. In that scenario, I predict The Orange making the Final Four.

Scenario two: Even though he’s healthy, Onuaku’s presence doesn’t matter because Syracuse once again helps an opponent beat them. Turnovers are high and the opposing teams are dissecting an uninspired defense. In that ugly scenario, I see The Orange being upset in the sweet sixteen; if not definitely beat by Kansas St. or Pittsburgh in the elite eight.

Scenario three: Onuaku doesn’t recover and can only play very limited minutes. Anything beyond the second round is playing on borrowed time with this scenario.

Overall, since this team has risen to the occasion more than once this season when it’s really mattered, I’ll firmly predict a Final Four for this team.  

Regardless, it will still be a fun journey. The Orange is a No. 1 seed for the first time in thirty years .

 And it plays what are basically home games during the first weekend, with the games taking place only 150 miles away from Syracuse.

And, most importantly, it’s March Madness time.

One of the greatest times to be a sports fan.

It’s always a little bittersweet when it starts, because we all know that in three weeks, college basketball will be over and the grind of summer sports will be upon us.

At least the weather will be nicer, especially in Central New York.

The Orange is ready for the tournament. The fans are more than ready.

And Buffalo, NY better be ready come Friday night. A sea of Orange will invade the city, the likes of which have never been seen before.


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