2013 Syracuse Orange = 1995 New Jersey Devils

Bear with me here.

The analogy is far from exact, particularly because I’m not especially well-versed in hockey, but it’s been rattling around in my head since partway through the Marquette game when someone commented on how ugly the ballgame was. It was indeed ugly, but that’s because of Syracuse’s beautifully frustrating defense. And that got me thinking, oddly enough, about hockey.

The mid-90s was the period of my life during which I paid the most attention to the NHL, fueled partly by the Rangers’ success (and the media attention it generated, even in Upstate New York) and partly by hours playing NHL ‘94 on my Sega Genesis, just because it was one of the only sports games we had at the time. (Also prominently featured: Joe Montana’s Sports Talk Football.) So I remember pretty well the Devils’ run to the 1995 Stanley Cup.

New Jersey wasn’t the most talented team in that year’s playoffs. They had a young goalie by the name of Brodeur who was coming off a Rookie of the Year season, but otherwise their roster was mostly lacking in star power and excitement. They did not have a particularly explosive offense, finishing 15th in the league in total goals scored for the regular season. What set the Devils apart, and ultimately propelled them all the way to their title, was their defense.

The ‘95 Devils played a unique defensive system called the “neutral zone trap”. It has been around since the 1960s but rarely used in professional play. But the Devils went all-in on this system, mastered it, played it to perfection. Their trap bogged down opponents’ high-flying offenses, and they allowed the fifth-fewest goals in the league. Their games were often ugly, defensive grinds, and they received their share of mockery and derision from the purists out there. But they doggedly stuck to their system and rode it all the way to a Cup.

I’m sure you see the parallels now. Syracuse has completely flummoxed its opponents in this year’s NCAA Tournament, forcing more than its share of ugly basketball. Their offense is middling, but their defense has been extraordinary and has carried them to this point. The system they play is unusual but they are fully committed to it and play it better than anyone out there. I’m just hoping that they get the same end result as the Devils did.


See you next week!


Many Certainly Wondered about Michael Carter-Williams’ ability to Make Cuse Win. But the Mighty Confident Way he Manhandled Crean’s Warriors last night — Making Crazy Winding layups and Multiple Challenging Willowy jump shots, and playing a Masterful, Crafty, Wondrous floor game — showed us all that the Man Can Work it on a Markedly Competitive, Wonderfully elite level.

And now Marquette’s Contemptible, Wearisome squad is all that stands between this Orange collective and a trip to the NCAA Men’s Championship Weekend.

Last night at halftime, after witnessing the Orange zone in its full glory, I said on Twitter “Shades of 2003 vs. Oklahoma”, when SU toppled the top seed in their region to earn a trip to New Orleans. That game was the true “coming-out party” for the 2-3 Zone. The favored Sooners were completely flummoxed by the Syracuse defense, on their way to the paltry end of a 63-47 score, shocking the world — and the legend was born. Last night’s final score was awfully similar, and for the same reason. Indiana had no answer. They were able to run a few good plays against SU but for the most part they were just swallowed up. The Orange frontcourt, in particular, played the zone masterfully. They were as active as I can ever remember seeing them. One of the weaknesses of the defense can be that forwards have to cover such a wide area, from shooters on the wing to the low block. But CJ Fair, James Southerland, and Jerami Grant were seemingly everywhere on that court. Closing out on Indiana’s stable of shooters and still getting back down low to help out and block shots. I mean, seriously. Syracuse blocked nearly 25% of Indiana’s shot attempts. 11 blocks on 47 shots. Unreal.

On the other side of the ball, SU took advantage of their superior backcourt size as MCW and Triche repeatedly got into the lane against the tiny IU guards. Even when Crean wised up and switched Oladipo onto MCW, Triche was still able to get down the lane with relative ease — and MCW masterfully handled the attention from the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. And that often meant there was a tiny dude guarding James Southerland, which meant a big needed to help on him, which meant a defense out of position, leading to Orange hoops. It’s not like SU played a perfect offensive game; far from it. They had a bunch of turnovers of the “fork-in-eye” variety. But you could tell that they were confident that they’d be able to get a pretty good shot on most possessions, and Indiana by contrast had no such faith in their ability to score.

Let me quickly give some shout-outs beyond the tribute to MCW above.

  • James Southerland was a focus of the IU defense all game. He was guarded by Oladipo for much of the first half. That alone tells you how worried the Hoosiers were about him. I want to give him credit for taking only three shots. With the exception of the one three that he did hit, where he used something like ten consecutive screens to get open, he was just very closely guarded all night. So he didn’t force anything, and yet he remained engaged and active on defense and on the glass.
  • Welcome back Jerami Grant! Excellent defense and rebounding from the freshman, and a few key ‘garbage points’ too. The defense did not slip when he was in the game, as it had tended to do recently. Boeheim recognized it too, and gave him some key minutes in the 2nd half.
  • Baye Matrix Keita was once again the defensive whiz that this team needs him to be. Even though his offense regressed (with that missed dunk and the airball layup) he masterminded the Orange zone all night. In a game where the defense was very spread out on the floor, thanks to the presence of a lot of good opposing shooters, he basically controlled the entire area inside the three-point line single-handedly.

OK, bring on Marquette, for what will hopefully be the last time. Seriously. I’m so sick of those guys. Unfortunately SU won’t have the “only one day to try to prepare for the zone” advantage that has been so good to them over the history of their tournament appearances. And we all remember the game in February where SU was outscored from the foul line 29-5. But remember, that game was on the road and SU only lost by 3. It seems much worse in our memories than it actually was, because of the way Marquette physically punished the SU interior. But slide a few calls into the other column, or get one or two more jump shots to fall, and SU walks out of Wisconsin with a win that night. So fear not, Orange faithful. Our dance is not yet done!

What’s going on

Mainly, this:

That’s right, I done got me some Sweet Sixteen tickets. Two, to be precise, as a birthday gift from my incredibly generous family. I have never seen SU play an NCAA tournament game in person. This is going to be amazing, even though my nose will almost certainly be bleeding. You can expect some blurry cell phone photos of the distant action. But the atmosphere promises to be electric. And who knows, maybe I will be able to snag the lower-level stubs of some kind Miami or Marquette fan who has to leave after the first game.

The other thing that’s happening is our “Pick With Your Heart” bracket contest. The rules are:
- You must pick Syracuse to win (so you never have to root against them)
- You get bonus points if you pick against Georgetown

By the way, the last time we ran this contest, we also provided bonus points for picking against Georgetown — and they promptly lost in the first round to Ohio. So, I shall claim some small amount of karma credit for their defeat at the hands of FGCU.

Currently in the lead is “Slutz Superb Bracket” with 435 points, which includes a 50-point bonus for picking against the Hoyas in the first round. In second place is “Otis Hill Bracket” with 430 points, including the +50, and in third is “Bracketology In Moten” with 425. Moten picked the Hoyas to fall to SDSU in the second round, so he gets +30. If he’d gone the “full Esherick” he’d be in first place right now. This is what happens when you don’t hate Georgetown enough. Currently in last place is the “Vic Hanson Bracket of Excellence” who may or may not win the “best bracket name” award. (Also in the running: “Pope Jim Boeheim”.)

Prizes will be announced next week as the Final Four approaches.

Syracuse in sweet sixteen vs… Buffalo?

Not only have the Syracuse Orange demolished lesser competition to advance to the regional semifinals, but so has the City of Syracuse in the Weather Channel’s “Toughest Weather City” 2013 tournament. We defeated Roanoke, VA and their piddly 20 inches of annual snowfall in the first round of the Northeast bracket and got by storm-blasted Nantucket, MA in the second round. Now we face off against our regional rival Buffalo; it’s like Duke vs. UNC except colder. Voting is open tonight until 4AM so get yourself on there and show those Western New Yorkers how we do it on the I-81 corridor.

Interestingly, Marquette, WI has also made it to the Sweet 16. Hmmm.

Sweet again!

The Syracuse defense, when thrust upon poor, unsuspecting souls who have minimal preparation time, can be deadly. You saw it last night. On an evening when the Orange played far from their sharpest offensive game, the zone completely befuddled the entire Cal roster (and coaching staff), propelling SU back to the east coast for their fourth Sweet Sixteen in five seasons. Consider that the Bears made just four three-pointers, two of which were 28-foot bombs that had no business going in anyway, for a blistering 19% from deep. And they turned the ball over 17 times. SU was sloppy on offense and missed a ton of foul shots and yet never really seemed in true danger of losing the game.

So, to recap. Syracuse on Thursday night:

Georgetown on Friday night:

Syracuse on Saturday night:

Georgetown tonight:

See you in DC on Thursday!

Syracuse-Montana recap


“Pick With Your Heart” bracket challenge returns!

This is how your NCAA bracket should look:

You should never have an incentive to root against Syracuse. And so, we here at Cuse Country have decided to revive our “Pick With Your Heart” bracket challenge. It’s free to enter, there are prizes available, and the only rule is this:

You must pick Syracuse to win the championship.

Any bracket without Syracuse in that final slot is ineligible, null and void, it is dead, it has ceased to be, it is an ex-bracket.

Here’s the scoring system:
Round 1 (Jonny Flynn) - 10 pts
Round 2 (Carmelo Anthony) -15 pts
Sweet Sixteen (Sherman Douglas) - 20 pts
Elite Eight (Pearl Washington) - 31 pts
Final Four (Derrick Coleman) - 44 pts
Championship game - 0 pts, because everyone has the same pick

In addition, you can follow your heart even further and get bonus points for picking against Georgetown:
+50 if you pick the Hoyas to lose in the first round
+30 if you pick them to lose in the second round
+10 if you pick them to lose in the Sweet Sixteen

The contest will be hosted by Yahoo. They don’t have the Hoya Bonus factored in but I will include that in my final calculations.

Here’s the link to join via Yahoo. The group ID is #127598 and the password is “ongenaet”. Once again, it’s free to enter and there will be real prizes (to be announced shortly). So go ahead and throw your Otto hat into the ring. And may the best bracket win!

PS. On another note, this never gets old:

Otto Poster


James Southerland getting in foul trouble was not the reason Syracuse lost last night. While his absence may have accelerated the process, the sad truth is that Louisville would have worn down the Orange with or without him.

The game reminded me a lot of the 2009 BET final between these same two teams. So I went back and took a closer look, and the similarities are eerie. That year, SU was the #6 seed while UL was #1. That was, of course, the year of Six Overtimes which was only a quarterfinal game. SU had dispatched Seton Hall in the opening round (sound familiar?!) and then played the epic vs. UConn. That was followed by a single-overtime win against WVU to put them in the finals. Meanwhile, Louisville had an easy quarterfinal win, then pulled away in the second half to win their semifinal by double-digits (again, sound familiar?!) to get to the title game.

SU came out on fire in the first half of that title game, and led at halftime by 8. They shot 53% from the floor, 50% from deep, while UL shot only 27% from deep and 39% overall. Visions of 2006 danced in our heads. But in the second half, the adrenaline wore off and Louisville had the fresh legs. Their defense forced SU into 10 2nd half turnovers and held the Orange to 37% shooting, including 0-8 from deep. The Orange also hurt themselves by shooting 46% from the free throw line in that second half. You could see their legs were finally tired, ruining their long-range shooting form. Meanwhile, the SU defense started to be a step slow, and Louisville got a bunch of open looks and easy shots. The Cardinals shot 61% in the 2nd half and ended up winning by 10.

That history repeated itself last night. SU, when they were able to fuel themselves with emotion, was able to handle the Cards’ defense on one end, and smother the Cards’ offense on the other. But when momentum finally shifted, it shifted in a big way. Tectonic-plate shifting big. SU’s defense got slow and porous, giving Louisville open shot after open shot, or getting caught out of position and sending the Cardinals to the foul line. On offense, SU did not have the mental energy to handle the excessive Louisville pressure, and when they did avoid turnovers and get open jumpers, they missed pretty badly. Lots of line-drive jumpers, which are a sign of tired legs — as are the many missed free throws by normally reliable shooters.

So, whether Southerland had stayed in the game or not, the Louisville run was going to happen. They might have staved it off a while longer, and it might not have been so dramatic of a swing, but I can’t say with any confidence that they would have won if not for that fourth foul. Because I don’t really believe it.

Another thing I don’t really believe, though, was how bad the officiating was. Just terrible. Atrocious. Mind-bogglingly awful. You know how Bruce Bowen would get away with tons of contact just because he had a reputation as an “elite defender”? Well with Louisville it’s like their whole team is Bruce Bowen. Their ‘vaunted’ pressure defense consists mainly of fouling guys over and over again until they lose control of the ball. Reach-ins, chest bumps, hand grabs. Pitino’s “brilliant” strategy is that the refs can’t possibly call all the fouls, so just keep fouling. If they do call it, the worst that happens is a couple free throws. If they don’t (which they won’t, not nearly as often as is deserved) then you get a turnover, and you frustrate your opponent and weaken his mental focus. This certainly contributed to the epic run that UL went on last night.

There are only two remedies to this. One is for the referees to call a proper game. Force Louisville to back off and play within the actual rules — what a shocking concept! But that didn’t happen last night, obviously, and it tends not to happen in a typical Louisville game. (I watched some of the ACC tournament this weekend; the Cardinals are in for a rude awakening when they switch leagues.) The only other solution is to copy what they are doing, try to be just as excessive in your contact, and hope that the officials let you get away with it too. But Syracuse’s defense is built on team positioning and movement, not individual aggression. So that avenue is not really open to them. Or at least not particularly beneficial to them. So they just had to try to fight through it, but because of how worn out they were playing their fourth game in a row, especially after the raw emotion of the semifinal win over Georgetown, they didn’t have enough in the tank to do so.

Quick NCAA seeding prediction: SU’s strength of schedule (#6), RPI (#14), and BPI (#11) suggest they could be a 3 seed, and if they’d won last night that’d be their most likely position. But as things stand today they’ll probably end up a 4. Anything worse than that would be disrespectful. See you after the selection show with some quick analysis.

Still smiling

It’s 4:45, and Georgetown still sucks.

By the way, that was the game I was hoping for when I got tickets to the season finale at the Verizon Center. I think that was the game everyone was hoping for that day, except maybe the obnoxious parts of the Hoya fanbase. Anyone with historical perspective wanted one more knock-down drag-out epic battle. And I’d be saying the same thing if GU had pulled off the win. That was as satisfying a ballgame as one can hope for.

Plus, any time you are led to victory by Trevor Cooney and Baye “7-for-7″ Keita, you know you’re having a good time no matter what.

Wouldn’t it be great to take the Big East trophy and just run off with it, forever, like the annoying kid who owns the football and thus can unilaterally decide “I don’t want to play anymore!” and go home, leaving the rest of the kids to shuffle around an empty field trying to figure out something to do. (Hi UConn!)

Let’s do this. One last time. One last run to a championship. GO ORANGE!