The Syracuse Orange, under Jim Boeheim since the beginning of time, have had a surprisingly difficult path to the Elite Eight this year. The Orange have struggled against all three of their opponents (at least at times), but have managed to scrape out victories in each game, often in the last seconds.
First up was the 16-seeded Bulldogs of UNC-Asheville. Coming into the tournament Ken Pomeroy excitedly told everyone that this might be the year for the fabled 16/1 upset. We very nearly got it from the Bulldogs, as they carried a lead against the Orange for much of the game, until a back and forth affair (with some questionable rules interpretation issues) ended up in Syracuse’s favor 72-65.
The Orange followed that win with a more lopsided victory over the Kansas State Wildcats. Despite the 75-59 final score, the Wildcats had the game within one at the half and even led briefly early in the second. Syracuse, however, had the legs to overpower the underdog Wildcats through the second half, and slowly ran away with the game to end their first weekend of play.
Last night, however, was a much different story. The Wisconsin Badgers, a tough hard-nosed team out of the Big Ten (with whom I’m sure many of us are familiar) gave the Orange the fight of their life. While Syracuse did a good job of keeping the Badgers out of the paint, they were unable to stop Bo Ryan’s boys from dropping 42 points from beyond the arc on 51.9% three point shooting. Outside shooting is one fool-proof way of beating the Orange, and Wisconsin almost managed it. However, a general weakness in the paint on both ends of the court, something that Wisconsin has struggled with all season long, doomed the Badgers. They were unable to get a quality last second shot, and were totally ineffectual playing defense inside against Syracuse’s bigs.
Freshman forward Rakeem Christmas (6-9, 228) has been benefiting the most from the ineligibility of Fab Melo. He has received the starting nod in all three tournament games so far, and is the tallest starter that Syracuse has to offer in replacement of Fab Melo’s 7-foot frame. While he did not perform particularly well against Wisconsin (0 points, 1 rebound, 3 fouls in 11 minutes), he did put up good numbers against Kansas State with 11 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 8 points in 34 minutes of play. He will most likely be the anchor of the Syracuse 2-3 zone, splitting time with the 6-10 sophomore Baye Keita at Center.
But as is typical with Syracuse, it’s their guards you really have to worry about. Senior guard Scoop Jardine (6-2, 195) has to be one of the single most dangerous guards in the country. While he only scores around 9 points per game, he can produce both outside and inside the arc, including off the dribble drive with his insane quickness. He is also an excellent distributor, and is more than capable of getting his teammates the ball at whim. Coupled with Jardine is the equally-dangerous off the dribble drive Dion Waiters (6-4, 215) who has hit 14-29 shots in the tournament.
The Buckeyes are in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2007, when Greg Oden, Mike Connelly, and company took the Buckeyes to the National Title game for the first time since 1962. This is a huge improvement over the last two seasons, where the Buckeyes fell in tight battles in the Sweet 16. After last night’s game, the players spoke about how happy they were to have gotten Coach Matta past the hump and back into the late rounds of the Tournament. It was clearly a goal for this team coming into the Sweet 16, but the stated goal has been, and continues to be, to keep advancing.
Syracuse represents the most difficult challenge the Buckeyes have yet had to face in this tournament. As well as Gonzaga and Cincinnati played in the last two rounds, the Orange will give the Buckeyes everything they can handle on both sides of the court. Cuse’s starters are talented on offense, and they have plenty of players that are capable of getting the ball in the bucket, or assisting others in finding a good shot.
|#32||L. Smith Jr.||24.946||6.324||47.6||59.0||36.6||4.649||2.027||0.919||0.135||1.946|
That said, Syracuse has almost certainly not faced a defense like Ohio State’s all season long. While Wisconsin plays great defense, they don’t have the same level of interior defense this year that OSU typically plays. The Orange will also struggling against the defensive play of Lenzelle Smith and William Buford – both who put on excellent shows last night on the defensive end – and of course Aaron Craft, who will likely draw Scoop Jardine as a defensive assignment.
Against the touted Syracuse 2-3 zone, the Buckeyes have already shown that they are more than capable of attacking it. Against Cincinnati, a decent team that is quite well taught in using the 2-3, the Bucks absolutely lit up the zone in the first half, especially when the Bearcats were forced to sit Yancy Gates. The game changed early in the second when the Bearcats switched back to man, and the Buckeyes had to readjust to handle the man-to-man defense. While Syracuse is certainly much more well coached in the 2-3 than Cincinnati is, the methods of attacking the zone remain the same, and the Buckeyes have shown themselves to be skilled in their use.
I ultimately expect both teams to play a tight basketball game, with runs likely going each way as the coaches make minor strategic tweaks to their gameplan. Eventually, though, the superior defense played by the Buckeyes will take it’s toll on Syracuse, particularly in the paint, and OSU will claim a close fought victory.
Ohio State and Syracuse are meeting for the first time since November 21st, 2007, when the Buckeyes beat Syracuse 79-65 in Madison Square Garden. The teams have not met in the NCAA Tournament since 1983, a game that the Buckeyes won 79-74 in the second round.
Ohio State and Syracuse will play in the Elite Eight for a shot at the Final Four on Saturday, March 23rd at 7:05 PM EST in Boston. That game will be played on CBS following the matchup between #4 Louisville and #7 Florida.