BOSTON, MA - MARCH 22: C.J. Fair #5 of the Syracuse Orange goes up to dunk the ball agianst Josh Gasser #21 of the Wisconsin Badgers during their 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball East Regional Semifinal game at TD Garden on March 22, 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
It's an Anti-Hollywood story. The bizzaro 'America's Team' that keeps fighting off challengers and proving all doubters wrong all while being both the heavy favorite and the no-chance underdog. The Syracuse Orange, winners 34 times in 36 games, have dealt with scandals, suspensions, and coach Jim Boeheim pissing off the national media. And despite it all Syracuse keeps wining. Barely sometimes, sure, but winning nonetheless.
It seems like most people either want SU to lose or they just think SU will lose. It's very Bad News Bearsesque, save for the fact Coach Buttermaker being a little less testy than Boeheim. All year people have waited for the roof to cave in on the Orange and, yet, they now sit 40 minutes from the Final Four. It's weird, as a follower I almost satisfied Syracuse got to this point. I think that's attributed to how taxing this season has been.
Then I remember that SU was a preseason top 5 team and, even without Fab Melo, they're talented and experienced enough to win three more times. Add in the amazing record and one seed and a loss now, especially given how crazy this year has been, isn't how this anti-feel good story is supposed to end. For it to continue, however, Syracuse will have to face the second toughest team in the tourney.
Overview - 2 seed Ohio State (30-7) is loaded with talent. Thad Matta's team has a potential top 3 NBA pick in sophomore forward Jared Sullinger, possibly the most underrated player in the country in sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas, and Big 10 Defensive Player of the year in Sophomore guard Aaron Craft. After tying for the regular season Big 10 title, the Buckeyes defeated 15 seed Loyola Maryland 78 - 59 in the 'second' round, 7 seed Gonzaga 73 - 66 in the round of 32, and, Thursday, Ohio State bounced 6 seed Cincinnati 81 - 66 in the Sweet 16. While the Bearcats actually had the lead in the second half for a brief moment, the game never had a feel that Ohio State was really in any serious trouble.
Strength(s)- Without sounding too panicked, the Buckeyes do a lot of things well. Let's start with an obvious one, rebounding. Ohio State pulls down 37 boards a game and Sullinger (9.2 rpg) and Thomas (5.3 rpg) are big reasons why. The two combine for 16 a game, nearly six combined on the offensive glass. When Melo was first suspended I think this game, moreso than Kansas State, was the one we all circled. Obviously, CJ Fair, Rakeem Christmas, and Baye Keita will have to continue to be active in the paint.
Another area of strength for Matta's Buckeyes is defense. Craft averages close to 3 steals, while as a team Ohio State holds opponents to just 59 points per game. Collectively the Buckeyes hold teams to 40 percent from the floor, 32 percent from distance. Meaning, it will probably be another lower scoring slug fest game for the Orange. One very similar to just about every game Syracuse plays, but don't expect Charles Barkley to know that. Ohio State also shoots the ball from inside the key well. As a team the Buckeyes shoot near 50 percent, skewed slightly by their Sullinger dunks. Still, this is a team that can hit shots around the free throw line (Thomas), the same area Boeheim dares opponents to shoot from.
Weakness(es)- I'm sure this will be a jinx, but OSU isn't a good three point shooting team. In fact, if Jon Diebler still had eligibility, the Buckeyes could have been scary good. Ohio State shoots just over 33 percent from deep, although they did hit 8 of 17 against Cincinnati. Senior guard William Buford is the key distance shooter for OSU, hitting at an impressive 36 percent. Another wrinkle, Thomas can hit the long ball too. He's actually at 36 percent and has attempted the second most threes on the team (49 for 136). In fact, Thomas is 6 for his last 12 attempts in the last two games. (By the way, I'm still shaking my head that Wisconsin shot 50 percent from three, made 14 of them, and still lost. That's some seriously bad game planning.)
Key Player(s) - Let's skip the obvious and go with Buford. The six foot six senior is a huge reason why Ohio State is still playing. Sullinger is a beast destined for a low level NBA team, Thomas does way more than he gets credit for and will eventually be in the same NBA boat, but Buford (averaging 14.4 ppg and 4.8 rpg) is the glue. Syracuse will have to collapse the zone and try to smother the OSU bigs and it will be on Buford's shoulders (and maybe Thomas') to hit shots on kick outs.
Overview - When the Bernie Fine scandal first erupted I thought the season, and just maybe Boeheim's career, would be over before its time. When the Melo suspension (part 1) first leaked out I thought the season would take a bad turn. Then...well you get the picture. There have been multiple times the season could have taken a Tounces like turn off a cliff. That never happened and I'm starting to think this entire amazing and maddening season can only end one way (which can't be typed here in fear of a jinx situation). So, even with the uber-talented Buckeyes waiting to finally prove everyone right, that SU isn't as good as their rank and seed, I get the feeling SU is feeding off it. Whatever it takes, Syracuse finds ways to win. It'll take that and more to beat Sullinger, Thomas, and the Buckeyes.
Still, as either the 'No-One-Believes-In-Us' favorite or the 'No-One-Believes-In-Us' underdog, Syracuse doesn't seem to want to stop adding chapters to this unreal true story.