You know what's better than putting together a preview for Syracuse's
second third round opponent? Not putting together a preview for Syracuse's second third round opponent.
For the Syracuse Orange (32-2) Thursday's 72 - 65 over 16 seed UNC Asheville was ugly, full of controversy, and, in the end, a game SU was lucky to win. I'll admit, at certain points I thought the season was over. Some questionable, at best, calls by the officials and some crunch time free throws allowed for the Orange to squeak it out and advance.
Still, a win, no matter how ugly, is a win (BCS style points thankfully don't exist here). Should Syracuse play the way they did against the Bulldogs, or even the way they did in New York City, again? Then, this will be the last game preview of the season. But despite what you watched on Thursday, and what you've heard and read since, Syracuse did indeed beat UNC-Asheville and they advanced on to play the 8 seed Wildcats of Kansas State.
Overview - Guess which team played just about as poorly as Syracuse and was just as lucky to advance? Yup, Kansas State. The Wildcats (22-10) struggled with 9 seed Southern Miss, trailing in the second half, before pulling out a 70 - 64 win over the Golden Eagles. I'll give you Southern Miss isn't UNC Asheville, but if you're an SU fan right now freaking out about K State, just watch Thursday's game tape. Everyone points out how the Wildcats own the paint, which is mostly true, but the Wildcats wouldn't even be able to rent any other part of the floor. K State shot 2-12 from distance against the Golden Eagles (33.8 percent from three for the year). Obviously, the closer the ball gets to the basket the more dangerous the Wildcats become.
On the season Kansas State finished fifth in the Big 12 and, including Thursday, is just 6-4 in their last 10 games. Kind of average, right? The Wildcats, however, did pick up some huge wins down the stretch of the season. In back to back February road games, Kansas State beat Baylor (57 - 56) and Missouri (78 - 68). If Frank Martin's team was hovering near the bubble, those two games put them to lock status.
Strength(s) - The paint. Kansas State has four players averaging at least 4 rebounds a game. Two of which, junior guard Rodney McGruder (more on him in a minute) and senior forward Jamar Samuels, average just over 2 offensive boards per game. As a team the Wildcats averaged almost 5 more rebounds per game than their opponents. As everyone knows, Syracuse, with or without Fab Melo, struggles to rebound. If McGruder, Samuels, or junior forward Jordan Henriquez are creating second and third chances for the Wildcats on offense, it may be a long day for Syracuse. Henriquez is also a big presence on defense, blocking 2 and a half shots a game and altering many others.
Weakness(es) - Here's a fun fact, the Wildcats haven't scored above 80 points in a game since mid-January (just 5 times on the season). When teams struggle from deep and rely on rebounds and drives to the rim to score, typically, those teams don't play a fast temp. Meaning, if Syracuse can, for the first time in weeks, get out and run they may be able to get the 'Cats out of rhythm. Thursday's game against Southern Miss was a perfect example of what Syracuse can't allow. The Golden Eagles often started their offensive sets near half court with the shot clock dwindling. The Orange, especially without Melo, will have to use any and all opportunities to get into transition.
Another major area of weakness for Kansas State is at point guard. Freshman Angel Rodriquez, who will likely be a terror in the Big 12 next season, played like a rookie Thursday. Rodriquez did score 13 points but his play was shaky at best. The frosh shot 4 for 11 from the field and went 0 - 3 from distance. His was the exact performance you would expect out of a newbie point guard playing in his first NCAA tournament game. Should Rodriquez play that way against the Orange, especially if Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine are active at the top of the zone, the 'Cats will have a major problem. If the old saying is experience and guard play win titles, I wouldn't feel too confident right now if I was in Frank Martin's position.
Key Player(s) - I like the depth of guys that can hit the glass for the 'Cats, but the key guy for Martin is clearly McGruder. In fact, without him, Southern Miss may very well have beaten Kansas State. The junior scored 30 points on 11 of 16 shooting in the win over the Eagles. For the year McGruder averages close to 16 points per game while pulling down 5 rebounds per. In the last five games McGruder has scored 24 points three times. If there was ever a guy to key in on for Syracuse, McGruder would be that man.
Outlook - K State wants to be all over the glass, all over everyone on defense, and to slow the Orange down. Syracuse can play that style (see just about every Big East game from February on), but I would like to see the Orange force the action rather than react to the action. Syracuse is known for their scoring runs which usually are the result of steals or rebounds. In other words, playing the aggressive style of ball that got them to this point. Something SU hasn't done in some time.
As for Thursday, I didn't think Syracuse struggled with UNC Asheville because Fab Melo wasn't in Pittsburgh. Look back to New York City and Syracuse's two games in the Big East Tournament. Melo was there and still there something just wasn't right with the Orange. I obviously can't speak to anything off the court, but as far as on the court, something has to change. Loose balls aren't landing in CJ Fair's hands (or any other Orange player), the defense is a step slower on rotations, and, outside of 'The Human Re-Tweet' Dion Waiters (copyright Sean Keeley), nobody is making shots. Those issues almost cost the Orange their dream season against UNC Asheville. If nothing changes, there will be no more need to look ahead to what's next for this team.