In so many ways, the word of the night is “deep”.
1. Wisconsin’s shooters were amazing from deep.
I solemnly swear I will never make fun of Wisconsin’s deliberate offense again. Bo Ryan had them coached up. They had a well-designed plan of attack against the zone and it frequently resulted in wide-open threes. (Too frequently.) And they drained just about every one of the wide-open shots. But that wasn’t all. They made three or four other three-pointers that were vigorously contested by Orange defenders, with the shot clock running down. Boeheim said it best in the post-game press conference, calling it “the best game anybody has ever played against us and didn’t beat us.” They were 14-27 on deep shots. Amazing.
But on the other hand, the Badgers were only 7-22 on two-point shots. They had a few early off of some nifty interior passing, but SU’s defense soon closed down the lane. CJ Fair ended up with four steals and I think they were all from him stepping into the paint and intercepting the same passes that Wisconsin had gotten away with early in the game. With SU effectively taking that aspect of their offense away, they had no choice but to bomb away from deep. And it almost worked.
2. Syracuse’s deep bench came up big again.
I almost don’t count Dion Waiters in this category anymore. At least, I don’t perceive him as a bench player. He’s the third starting guard who just happens to not start. So his great game is not what I’m referring to here. No, I’m talking about the formerly left-for-dead Baye Moussa Keita, who was so HUGE in this game that it made Billy Fucillo jealous. The stat sheet doesn’t show a ton of numbers. But his presence in the paint on defense was a major part of SU shutting down the lane. Wisconsin tested the limits of the zone and Baye’s understanding of positioning and movement on the back line was crucial. And he grabbed five rebounds, more than any individual Badger and second to CJ for game-high honors. One of these boards in particular stood out. It came with 5 minutes left and SU clinging to a one-point lead (60-59). Wisconsin missed a three and Baye went way up to snatch the board in traffic. Keita also had a couple of baskets on a night when every point and every possession mattered. It was his best performance since last year.
And it was sorely needed. Rakeem Christmas did not have a particularly good game on defense, after his outstanding showing against Kansas State last weekend. But it wasn’t so much that Rakeem regressed per se. It was more the fact that Baye’s defensive skill set was a better fit for the kind of defense SU had to play. Wisconsin really spread the zone thin and made it move with lots of perimeter passing. Baye is quicker than Christmas and covers more ground, and is a better defender when he has to step up to the foul line. Christmas is more of a physical defender, and stronger. But Wisconsin did not feature a bunch of brawny guys trying to post up, so Rakeem’s strength was not needed as much as Baye’s quickness.
3. Syracuse has not advanced this deep into the tournament often.
In the Jim Boeheim era, SU has made just five Elite Eights, including this one. (In 1989 they lost to Illinois — by three measly points — but the other three times they advanced all the way to the title game.) That’s out of 30 or so NCAA tournament appearances. In fact, they’ve been to the Sweet Sixteen fifteen times but only advanced past it five times. Obviously we all would love to notch another Final Four but just making it this far has already put this Syracuse team a step above most of the squads in program history. (That is, if the record-setting regular season wasn’t enough for you.)
I was watching part of tonight’s Marquette game — good riddance, by the way, serves you right for beating us last year — and the announcers at one point were talking about “college basketball royalty” and how a program like Marquette stacked up. And, as you might expect, the guy rattled off the Big Four programs: Duke, UNC, Kansas, Kentucky. And rightfully so. The next school that he thought of was… Indiana. Why not Syracuse? SU has the fifth-most wins in NCAA history (behind the Big Four), and the sixth-best winning percentage (behind those four plus UCLA). Indiana is twelfth in all-time wins and around 20th in win percentage. I think the biggest factor in why SU doesn’t automatically come to mind is that they have so rarely made it beyond the round of 16, let alone to the Final Four. Indiana has been to eight Final Fours. Ohio State has been to ten. Hell, Oklahoma State has been to more Final Fours (six) than Syracuse (four). I spent a lot of time defending the premise that making it to the Sweet Sixteen marks a “successful season”, and I still believe that. But I won’t deny that taking that next step is a whole lot sweeter.
4. Some final deep thoughts
- Let’s not overlook the contributions of Brandon Triche tonight. While CJ Fair’s slump-busting will make most of the headlines, along with Scoop’s and Dion’s late clutch shots, it was Brandon who got SU going early and played a pivotal role in the first-half lead they built. He was aggressive all game and really played well.
- SU shot well over 50% against Wisconsin’s supposedly amazing defense. But then UW shot great against SU’s supposedly amazing defense too. It’s weird to say a game in the 60s was a “shootout” but I think this one qualifies. Even so, I doubt it makes the cut for the “Orange Glory II” DVD. I don’t think I want to ever watch this game again.
- Not too surprising since the final score was so tight, but the numbers were amazingly even across the board. SU led on rebounds by one. Each team had six turnovers. Each team had 49 shot attempts. SU’s FG% was better (55-43), but if you calculate Effective FG% (where three-pointers are weighted more heavily) they were almost even: SU 60% eFG, UW 57% eFG.
- Ten days ago when the Fab Melo suspension news broke, I said that SU was still “very good” but could no longer be considered “elite”. Well, someone get me rewrite because the Syracuse Orange have advanced to the Elite Eight.
(Barely. But who’s counting?)
Bring on the Buckeyes! Whatever else happens, I can say this much for certain about Saturday’s game: it will be a matchup of two of the goofiest-looking mascots in college sports.