The 28-9 Orange easily defeated Montana and California in their first two tournament games, while the Hoosiers had a slightly tougher road against James Madison and especially Temple on their way to the Sweet 16.
Indiana offense vs. Syracuse defense:
By most measurable stats, Indiana is one of the most prolific scoring teams in the country, hands down. They were third in the nation in points per game at an even 80, and seventh in field goal percentage at 48.6%. They take a lot of shots, and they make a lot of shots, making them (according to ESPN) the second most efficient offense in all of Division I.
The Hoosiers get their points by running the floor and looking for wide-open shots, especially from deep. Three of their top four scorers shoot better than 40% from three, including Naismith player of the year candidate Victor Oladipo at 43.%, forward Christian Watford at 48%, and Jordan Hulls at 46%. Reserve forward Will Sheehey is no slouch either, checking in at a respectable 36%. As a team they shoot nearly 41% from three (40.8% to be exact), and 48.6% overall.
On the inside, IU has All-American candidate Cody Zeller to contend with. Zeller is a lanky center/forward who is skilled in the mid-post and adept at finding open teammates – exactly the kind of ability that can give a zone defense fits. He is the Hoosiers’ leading scorer and rebounder at 16.7 and 8.0, and shoots 57% from the floor.
We know that Syracuse utilizes the 2-3 zone to take away opponents’ interior play, and dares teams to bomb away from the outside. They allow the third-best defensive field goal percentage in the nation at 37.3%, and are sixth in three-point percentage allowed at 28.9%. The Orange rely on the athleticism of their guards and forwards to rotate out to shooters and contest shots. SU can be beaten when they don’t get out to the perimeter in time, or when a shooter gets white hot (see: Porter, Otto or Wyatt, Khalif). The Hoosiers may present the toughest collective challenge for SU’s zone to date, so their perimeter players will have to identify and react to shooters early or it could be a long night for the men in orange.
Syracuse offense vs. Indiana defense:
On the other end of the court, Syracuse will kind of find themselves looking in the mirror. Much like the Orange, I believe the strength of the Hoosiers lies in their perimeter players – even considering the presence of Zeller. Oladipo is a first-class athlete and defender, capable of guarding three positions. We’ll likely seem him matched up against Brandon Triche, but he could conceivably switch to Michael Carter-Williams or C.J. Fair if either of them heats up. Sheehey is also a standout defender and rebounder (akin to less athletic, more experienced Jerami Grant), who could see plenty of action against Fair or James Southerland.
The key for Syracuse will be half court execution. MCW and Triche will need to set the tone early and keep their teammates involved, and their teammates have to respond by finishing plays when given the opportunity. Rakeem Christmas, we’re looking at you. Indiana is a solid rebounding team, 24th in the nation overall at 38.6 per game, so making the most of open shots and then getting back on defense to stop their transition game will be big.
In many ways, Syracuse and Indiana play similar styles. Both like to get up and down the floor and push the offensive tempo. Both like to shoot the long ball. Both employ high-energy, frenetic defenses to force turnovers and bad shots, which they turn into fast break baskets. So the game could come down to turnovers and half court execution. Can Syracuse’s centers contain Zeller and allow the perimeter defense to stay home on IU’s shooters? Can Triche and Carter-Williams protect the ball and maximize SU’s possessions? Those could be the key to a Syracuse victory Thursday night.