If you follow college basketball on Twitter, there is a good chance you see things from Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician pop up into your timeline.
And with good reason, Nunes Magician is the premier place to go on the Internet for anything and everything related to Syracuse sports. Since all I know about Syracuse is that zone defense thing, John Cassillo helped me out by answering a few questions about Syracuse.
I thought I read something in the national media about how Syracuse wasn't even supposed to be playing in the NCAA Tournament in the first place, and now they are in the Sweet 16. How did Syracuse make it this far?
Yeah, a lot of people said that. A lot of people also seem pretty adamant that we don't belong in the Sweet 16 now, either. Weird how these things work. But alas... can't (and won't) please everyone.
We've made it this far by imposing our will against two teams (Dayton and Middle Tennessee) that just didn't have answers inside on either end, plus some hot shooting as a result of defensive pressure. Second half runs guided both blowout wins. While this level of play isn't completely unexpected given how the regular season went, it's not like we were completely banking on it -- especially after a weak finish.
Gonzaga has done a great job of shutting down star players on opposing teams so far this tournament. If Gbinjie, Richardson or Cooney struggles, which players have the potential to step up and carry some of that offensive load.
I may regret mentioning this, but Michael Gbinije has yet to truly "struggle" his entire senior season. Through 34 games, he's yet to fall short of 10 points scoring, and when he's not hitting the mark, he typically transitions to a defensive-minded and supporting role to help facilitate his teammates. When Malachi Richardson or Trevor Cooney fails to show up, typically the other one does... in victories, anyway. In losses, neither does, and that's that.
Tyler Lydon's a wildcard, and arguably the most critical player against Gonzaga. We have some size in the middle, but not a lot of depth. Lydon's the only "big" who can truly score consistently, and he can do so from all over the floor. If any of the guards struggle, he could help pick up the scoring load. If they don't struggle and he's still getting to the basket, that means good things for Syracuse.
Apparently Syracuse likes to play a zone defense. Kyle Wiltjer seems like one of those players designed to thrash zone defenses into nothingness. Will Syracuse do anything different to try and keep him under wraps?
Yeah, I've heard we do play a little bit of zone. I don't know if Wiltjer's designed to destroy Syacuse's zone, specifically, just due to the length of it and the athletes the Orange put out there. But yeah, any big with an ability to both take it inside and hit from three could do some damage.
In cases like this, Syracuse will sometimes just let that player get his points and focus on shutting down everyone else. I'm unsure if that really works here -- especially with Domantas Sabonis out there as well. But it's unlikely Jim Boeheim's zone truly adapts itself too much to one player. That's never been the style of this defense, so they'll go down with the ship if Wiltjer exacts his will while other players also get involved. If he's cold, they'll suffocate him and every other Gonzaga would-be shooter.
Gonzaga is a pretty decent rebounding team, especially with Domantas Sabonis patrolling the paint. How will Syracuse try and corral him on the rebounding edge?
Syracuse's rebounding relies on one player: Tyler Roberson. If he can crash the boards himself (especially on offense), the Orange have a chance in that battle. If he has one of his patented off nights, they won't and SU's likelihood of losing the game goes up exponentially. We're not a great shooting team ourselves, so every little bit helps in terms of maximizing our own possessions too. Expect Syracuse to send a body in to combat Sabonis on the glass. But we've never been one for changing too much (see above) for one player. So if he's dominating the boards, don't expect the Orange to rush to bring more players in to change that narrative. They'll try to find other ways to challenge the Zags.
This Syracuse team doesn't have near as much star power as the team back in 2010. Are there any x-factor sort of players that we might hear in the future for a few years?
Lydon's been covered, and Richardon's another, provided both can find some consistency. Assuming both come back for next season, they'll be cornerstones of this offensive attack. Now where questions could arise is defensively, as both players need to improve a little bit. So while this team doesn't have as many players that have already "arrived" as that 2010 team did, you look at those two, possibly Roberson and reserve guard Frank Howard, and you've got a good collection of returning players who could round into form next season.
The Orange were a streaky team this year, with four-straight losses to open conference play, followed by dropping five of their final six conference games. What was going wrong during each of those stretches?
Both stretches are pretty easy to explain. On the first: Strength of schedule and the team just continuing to struggle to get its bearings without Jim Boeheim on the sideline. Boeheim missed those first three games at Pitt, at Miami and at home against a then-hot Clemson team. Then he returned to host an excellent North Carolina squad. Two of those teams have made it to the Sweet 16, and another made the NCAAs. Syracuse beating any of them without its head coach would've been nice, but not expected. The Clemson loss was a tough one that the team let slip through its fingers at the close.
The second stretch had Boeheim, but still comes down to strength of schedule. Road losses to Louisville and North Carolina were understandable, and they lost a tight game down in Tallahassee to a quality Florida State team too. Losing twice to Pitt makes a lot of sense to Syracuse fans that watched Jamie Dixon somehow master the Orange during his tenure and are glad to see him head to TCU. This isn't to say that SU should've definitely lost all of those games as a tournament team. But you're not necessarily penalized too much for doing so.
Your prediction on the game!
I don't buy Syracuse and Gonzaga as being less deserving than the rest of this Sweet 16 field just because of the numbers "10" and "11" tossed next to their names. Both the Orange and Bulldogs bring a lot of talent to the table, and while those talents may differ in appearance, they should still bring us a pretty great game come Friday evening. Stopping Wiltjer and Sabonis is no easy feat, but there's nothing that says the Zags can completely shut down a Syracuse team that shot 55 percent from the floor vs. MTSU either. SU won't be running away from Gonzaga in the second half or smothering them in the middle. If the Orange force some early Sabonis mistakes and Gbinije can keep the offense scoring at a steady enough clip, there's a good chance we're Elite 8-bound.
This won't be easy, but I like the Orange to be able to hold off the Zags by a slim margin. Give me a 68-64 final.
Big 'ol thanks to John for taking time out of his day to answer my questions. You can see the flipside of this conversation over on Nunes Magician. Remember, if you decide to go over there and comment, try and make us look good. Be polite, it is their blog after all!