So here we are. Approximately four hours from tip-off against Ohio State for a chance to go to the Final Four. If you don’t already have those familiar pre-game nervous giddy shakes then I don’t know what to tell you. (This applies to fans only, not any players who may be doing a little light pre-game reading. I know you guys are totally confident. Let us fans freak out in your stead.) There are dozens of breakdowns of this game all over the place, as befits a contest of its significance. And 100% of them focus on Jared Sullinger vs. SU’s non-Fab centers. And appropriately so, because Sullinger is quite a talented gentleman. But this game has factors that go way beyond that single matchup.
For instance, nobody is talking about how SU’s offense will fare against OSU’s defense. It’s like the entire game will be decided on one end of the court. While I do have something to say about that, let’s first look at whether SU will be able to score on these guys.
One’s first inclination is to say “Sure, they can score on anyone.” But it’s not that simple. SU has struggled at times this year with physical, aggressive defenses. (See: Cincinnati, Louisville, Georgetown.) Now, supposedly Wisconsin plays a physical, aggressive defense, but SU torched them to the tune of 55% shooting (and it would have been even better if they hadn’t had a couple of layups roll off the rim). Between CJ Fair slashing and the three guards driving the lane, SU was getting plenty of shots close to the basket. It helped that Wisconsin did not have a shot-blocker. They had big, beefy forwards who take up a lot of space, but SU’s guys were generally quick enough to go around them.
Ohio State also doesn’t have a shot blocker. Sullinger swats one per game, tops on the team (35 total). They do have a freshman 6′11″ center named Amir Williams on their bench. He’s second on the team in blocks (21) despite playing extremely limited minutes. But the rest of his game is seriously limited and I doubt he’ll be a major factor. So that’s good news for the Orange.
However, SU’s difficulty won’t be scoring at the rim, but rather getting there in the first place. It will be much harder to drive against OSU’s guards than it was against Wisconsin’s or K-State’s for that matter. OSU boasts the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in guard Aaron Craft. The dude is a ball-hawk extraordinaire. He has 94 steals on the year (2.5 per game). I watched him in OSU’s game against Cincinnati and he was a terror. It was nearly impossible for Cashmere Wright et. al. to drive past him into the lane. He’s got great defensive footwork and quick hands. He had six steals and many more turnover-inducing possessions. He was a major reason that Cincy turned the ball over 18 times in that game (they had been averaging just 11 a game on the year). I’ll say it right now: Craft will give Scoop Jardine fits.
That is, if he is guarding Scoop. One of SU’s big advantages this season is that they have no “shooting guard” in the traditional sense. They have three “scoring point guards”, all of whom can handle the ball and all of whom are excellent at driving the lane and finishing. and Craft can only shut down one of them at a time. Whoever he is not guarding on any given possession should be the guy who initiates the offense and looks for his drive. SU took this approach down the stretch against Kansas State last week. K-State’s shooting guard (Spradling) did not have the athleticism to defend any of SU’s guards, so whoever he was defending was the guy who took the ball at the rim. So whoever Craft is defending, that guy is going to have to be extra careful with the ball, and also extra willing to defer on offense to the rest of the team. Now, OSU’s other perimeter guys are good defenders too, not on Craft’s level but they are not a bunch of Spradlings. Buford and Smith have the size to match up with, say, Waiters and Joseph. I don’t know whether SU will have a quickness advantage against those guys or not. But the Orange will definitely have a better chance to get the ball in close if they focus their attack on those two.
I am going to assume that Sullinger’s job on defense will be nominally to guard SU’s center, but really to help out whenever an SU player penetrates towards the basket. Here is one place missing Fab is going to really hurt, because he was a reliable option to receive passes and finish at the rim if his man left to help. Christmas has shown some ability to do this; Keita has struggled in this area all season (he had one great pick-and-roll to the rim against Wisconsin, but he also had a potential dunk just stripped clean out of his hands after catching it two feet from the rim).
All in all, I don’t think Ohio State’s defense presents any new wrinkles that SU hasn’t seen. It’s just going to be a better, more talented version of what they’ve faced all year. They’ll have to raise their offensive game accordingly.
As for Ohio State’s ability to score on SU, I expect Sullinger to have his standard good game. Whether their entire team has a good game comes down, I think, to two things:
Ohio State’s jump shooting
To be fair, this is usually the second-most mentioned factor behind Sullinger. After seeing what Wisconsin did on Thursday night, everyone suddenly seemed to realize that if you hit 14 three-pointers against SU you have a great chance to beat them. (Well, no shit. Isn’t that true of any team anywhere?) But that approach is the opposite of Ohio State’s usual game plan. Three-pointers account for barely a quarter of their field goal attempts on the year, and they score just 20% of their points on threes. They really are an interior-focused offense.
What this means is that you can expect a very different zone approach from Syracuse than what you saw on Thursday. Against Wisconsin, who put five pretty good shooters on the floor, the zone was spread super-thin and extended way out around the perimeter. (This is why Keita played so much more than Christmas: SU needed its center to cover more ground than usual, and Keita is the more mobile and quicker center.) When the Badgers passed the ball to the foul line, the Syracuse center came up to guard him. Tonight, I expect that the center will try to stay low, and it will be the two guards at the top of the defense who drop back to protect the foul line area when the ball goes in there. This will leave some openings for Ohio State to get shots from outside if they can pass the ball effectively. Not just threes, but medium-range twos will be available. Can OSU hit enough jumpers to stretch the SU defense?
Here’s the thing: even though OSU takes very few threes, they actually shoot them at a decent clip. The four OSU starters not named Sullinger each shoot around 35% from deep, and Sullinger actually is hitting threes at over 40% on the year (though he only takes around one per game). If OSU does start making a bunch of threes like they did against Cincinnati, SU will be forced to extend the defense out further, and that is what would give Sullinger the room he needs to dominate against SU’s backup centers. On the other hand, if OSU has just their normal night from deep (5-15 is their average three-point performance per game this season) SU should be able to hang with them
The short turnaround
Think back to the last time Syracuse played an Elite Eight game. They faced #1 seed Oklahoma in 2003 and their defense held the Sooners to 47 points. OU had absolutely no clue what they were doing against the zone. They’d only had one day to prepare for it and were completely stymied. The Sooners had 18 field goals made and 19 turnovers that day. That is the power of facing the Syracuse zone defense on short notice. You have all these plays you’ve been running all year and suddenly they don’t work anymore. You have to do things that you might not be comfortable doing. Now, Ohio State does have the talent to adapt, but whether they actually succeed or not is the big question. Here again the key guy may be Aaron Craft. OSU has a good low turnover rate of 17.6% — not quite as good as Wisconsin’s, but still among the top 50 in the nation. Craft is their leading assist guy with a better than 2-1 assist/TO ratio. Their offensive success (or not) will hinge in no small part on how well he facilitates their ball movement against the zone.
What I’m not expecting to matter in regards to the short turnaround is OSU’s lack of depth. They play their five starters a ton. No one on their bench scores more than 3.5ppg, and in a game of this magnitude I would be surprised if any of the starters played less than 30 minutes. But don’t rely on the Buckeye starters getting tired. It’s not like they’re playing three games in three days. Nor are they the aging Boston Celtics. Major college athletes can run all day for days on end if they have to. Think back to the 2009 Big East Tournament, with the six-overtime game. The Syracuse players didn’t really start to show any fatigue until the 2nd half of the championship game against Lousiville, two days later. The only way the lack of depth becomes an issue is if OSU gets some guys in foul trouble. Which is a legitimate possibility, but you never know how that will go until it actually happens.
OK, that’s enough from me. I’m not bold enough to make a prediction, even one with no consequences attached if I’m wrong. I can’t worry about that. I’m just going to enjoy the game. And by “enjoy” I mean sweat bullets for a couple of hours and scream bloody hell at my TV.