To say this has been an unexpected run through the NCAA Tournament for Jim Boeheim and his Syracuse Orange would be an understatement. With the talking heads who can’t get coaching jobs continuing to blather on about how the Orange don’t deserve to be in the tournament despite reaching the Elite Eight, the season has already gone from what seemed like an unmitigated disaster to a smashing success.
Oh by the way, just as a side note, if certain windbags had spent as much time on their free throws as they do on bashing Syracuse and picking fights with its fanbase, maybe they wouldn’t have shot 45.7% from the charity stripe for their careers.
Not to get too far sidetracked here, but this is an absolutely true story: when Oklahoma State came to the Carrier Dome to play in the NCAA Regionals, with the game on the line down the stretch, head coach Eddie Sutton sent his starting point guard – the one guy you’re supposed to want to have the ball in his hands in clutch situations – to the other side of the court to avoid getting him sent to the free throw line. I have never, ever seen that before, and I don’t anticipate ever seeing it again. But keep jabbering on about how much other people suck, Doug.
In any event, getting back to the topic at hand, tomorrow the Orange will be attempting to continue what’s been nothing short of a miraculous run when they take on No. 1-seed Virginia. Now, I don’t think that Virginia is the most talented team in the tournament. I don’t believe they’ll win the national championship (though obviously, it’s certainly a possibility). But out of all the No. 1-seeds in the field, they were always the last one I wanted to see in Syracuse’s region.
Why? Quite simply, because ever since the Orange joined the ACC, the Cavaliers have owned them. Yes, it’s a limited sample size, with only three games played between the two programs. But Virginia has won all three, including a 73-65 decision in Charlottesville earlier this year. That was the closest game of the three, and Syracuse actually had the Hoos tied at 50 before Virginia pulled away down the stretch.
In that game, it was a two-man show for the Orange. Of those 65 points, Michael Gbinije and Malachi Richardson combined to score 47. No one else was in double figures for Jim Boeheim’s squad, who were also out-rebounded 27-22 (Tyler Roberson pulled down seven boards to lead the Orange).
Meanwhile, in the first three games of the tournament the Cavs have looked virtually unstoppable. In their first three games, they’ve been unbelievably efficient offensively, shooting 55.2%, 55.8%, and 56.1% from the field as a team in their first three games to reach the Elite Eight. They’ve been averaging 19.0 assists-per-game, and in their Sweet Sixteen win over Iowa State, out of 32 made field goals they dished out 26 assists.
That’s just incredible offensive efficiency, though it’s nothing new. For the year, the Hoos rank seventh in the nation in team field goal percentage at 49.3%, and 10th in three point percentage at 40.3%. Defensively they’re even better, with the second best average points allowed per game in the country, with their opponents scoring just 59.8 points on average.
But if Syracuse continued to play the way they have through the first three rounds, particularly on defense (since the offense has been a bit inconsistent and slow out of the gate), then the Orange should certainly be able to hang with, and potentially knock off, this Virginia team. After all, this is a squad that lost to Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Florida State, and George Washington in the regular season. They’re an excellent, efficient, well coached team, but they’re not unbeatable by any stretch.
One of the big factors working in Syracuse’s favor is the way the post players have stepped up for the Orange through the first three rounds, including against one of the best front court tandems in the nation in Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis of Gonzaga. Against Virginia in that first game, Syracuse had zero blocked shots. Against Gonzaga, they had 11. In fact, the Orange have swatted away 21 shots in the last two rounds combined, and are averaging 7.7 blocks per game in the tournament.
Tyler Lydon is primarily responsible for the big jump in those numbers, averaging 4.3 blocks per game during March Madness, with six blocks in each of the past two games. And he, Tyler Roberson, and Malachi Richardson have all stepped up and become significantly more active in the back of the 2-3 zone, shutting down passing lanes much quicker and crashing the boards effectively. Roberson’s averaging 13.0 rebounds per game in the tournament, while Lydon is pulling down 6.0 per contest. Dajuan Coleman has played some solid minutes, but as has been the case all year, Boeheim prefers going with the quicker, rangier front line of Lydon, Richardson, and Roberson when push comes to shove.
Speaking of pushing and shoving, one area that could be a factor is with fouls. In the first meeting against Virginia, Syracuse was whistled for 18 fouls in the game, versus just 12 for the Hoos. If Syracuse wants to knock off Virginia, it’ll need Roberson and Lydon in particular to stay out of foul trouble down low. Without the two Tylers, the Orange don’t stand much of a chance at keeping pace.
Another potential X-Factor for Syracuse might wind up being Frank Howard. The freshman only played five minutes and didn’t register in the stat sheet otherwise at Virginia earlier this year, but he’s come alive a bit down the stretch and into the tournament. His playing time has jumped up to 12.0 minutes per game through the first three rounds, and he’s done a terrific job of penetrating the lane and creating opportunities for his teammates. With ACC Defensive Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon – who’s also the overall Player of the Year in the conference, if you weren’t aware – hounding Syracuse’s guards, it’d be an awfully nice time for Howard to step up and enable Gbinije to slide off the ball and focus primarily on getting his offense, rather than creating for everyone else while still trying to reach his scoring average (17.7 PPG in the tournament).
At this point in the season, and with the way Syracuse has defied the odds and the naysayers to reach the Elite Eight, it’s a bit asinine to suggest they’ve got no shot at downing the Hoos and clinching a spot in the Final Four.
Virginia obviously enters the game favored, and nine out of 10 people will be picking them to halt Syracuse’s run. But if Syracuse is able to continue playing strong, active defense (keep in mind, they led Gonzaga to its second lowest scoring output of the season on Friday), create some turnovers (not easy against a Virginia team that takes care of the ball very, very well), and continue crashing and competing on the boards, tomorrow that 10th guy might just wind up being right.