Run and gun! That's what the Syracuse Orange do best. Like Maryland with its crabcakes and football. Scoop Jardine or Brandon Triche leading the fast break that usually ends with a Kris Joseph or Dion Waiters short but powerful tomahawk slam. Still, is the fast break the most important feature of this Orange team?
While I agree the Orange (33-2) can be virtually unstoppable on the break (something I've wrote about a lot), the longer the season has gone the more I'm inclined to think SU's really best at being a mudder. Getting dirty in a low scoring game. Syracuse does like to run, but doesn't always get to do it. In fact, since February fast break points can be extremely rare. Four times in the last 10 games Syracuse has won games while scoring less than 60 points! Yes, SU does average 74 points per game, putting the team at 34th in the country, but the defensive numbers are even more impressive.
Nationally Syracuse ranks in the top 10 in field goal shooting defense, holding opponents to 38 percent from the field. Their three point defense is just as stingy. Teams hit at just 30 percent from deep against the Orange. While we all marvel at the quick scoring, put an 18 to nothing run in a few minutes on you, offense, it's the defense that has allowed Syracuse to win 33 times in 35 games. With just over 9 steals per game (third best in the country), it's the steal and outlet that leads to fast breaks for Syracuse. Not the typical rebound outlet.
Why does this matter? Who cares if it's the defense or the offense leading SU in to the Sweet 16? Honestly, it doesn't. Caring about how a team with 33 wins is like wondering who is going to step up for them in crunch time. It's really not a problem. But, I've read and heard a lot of 'experts' claiming Syracuse's next opponent, the Wisconsin Badgers, will slow down the Orange and take them out of it's 'comfort' zone. Those people (you know who I mean) obviously have either not seen SU a lot this season, or they have some sort of 'I hate Jim Boeheim for not recruiting me despite my mom attending SU and I hate Boeheim for ripping me in the press all the time' type of bias. Either way, the Orange can run the Badgers out of the building or they can grind it out in a slobber-knocker (Jim Ross style)
Overall - 4 seed Wisconsin defeated 13 seed Montana 73 - 49 (great upset call by me there) in the second round and they outlasted Vanderbilt 60-57 in the round of 32. This season the Badgers (26-9) finished fourth in the ultra competitive Big Ten. Bo Ryan's team isn't loaded with talent, but they have had some impressive wins, including at Ohio State in late February.
Strength(s) - Even if you're just a casual college hoops fan, you've heard how great at defense the Badgers are year in and year out. The numbers back that up as Wisconsin holds opponents to just under 53 points per game, best in the country, and they limit teams to 38.5 percent shooting from the field (eighth best in the NCAA). And for as good as SU is clamping down on shots from distance, the Badgers are even better, holding opponents to just under 29 percent from three.
In other words, Wisconsin can D up. I contend, however, that a lot of the great defensive numbers are (at least somewhat) skewed by Ryan's offense. The Badgers play what amounts to the basketball version of 'Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust' on offense. It's all about possessions. Ryan likes to maximize his, (Sconny ranks second in the country in turnovers. The Badgers cough it up just 9 times a game), using almost all of the shot clock, while limiting the opponents'. I'm not saying Sconny isn't collectively great at D, again, the stats prove it, but I am saying their style of offense changes the game for opponents (much slower than anything SU has seen this season). Teams tend to get frustrated, but it's not exactly the pressure from an active defense causing that frustration. With Wisconsin ranking 300th in the steals department, teams tend to get upset from waiting so long to get the ball back.
For all the great defensive numbers, most of the offensive numbers aren't good (more on that in a second). Still, the Badgers do shoot 36 percent from distance. Sophomore guard Josh Gasser has made 41 of 90 three attempts (46 percent) on the season. With only 90 attempts, Gasser is a player that gets hot (double figures scoring 13 times this season) or is virtually non-existent (goose egg against Vandy). Syracuse will also have to key in on junior forward Jared Berggren (36 percent) and sophomore guard Ben Brust (38 percent). Senior guard Jordan Taylor has some issues shooting, but he is the heart and soul to the Badgers. If he's on, Taylor is a major key for Ryan and the Badgers.
Weakness(es) - Outside of decent shooting from distance, Wisconsin isn't a pretty watch on offense. That's, again, due to their style, which results with the Badgers ranking poorly in most offensive categories. Sconny is in the 200s in points per game (63.9), assists (11.7), and shooting percentage (42.4).
Rebounding is a big concern, too. Actually, meet one of the few teams left playing that is worse at rebounding than Syracuse. The Badgers average one board fewer per game than the Orange. Three players, junior guard Ryan Evans (6.8 rpg), junior forward Mike Bruesewitz (5.2), and Berggren (5 rpg), lead the team in rebounding. Two of those three are listed at six foot six, meaning this isn't exactly a beat you up inside type of team. If the Orange can rebound like it did in the second half against K State (hello Rakeem Christmas!), Syracuse could (gasp) have a huge advantage on the glass.
Key Player(s)- Taylor leads the team in scoring (14.7 ppg), assists (4 apg) and steals (1 spg), he also ranks second on the team in free throw shooting percentage (79 percent). Taylor scored in double digits in all but five games this season (Wisconsin is surprisingly 4-1 in those five games), including the Badgers 3-point win over Vanderbilt where Taylor didn't shoot well, but did score 14 and pulled down 8 rebounds.
Without Taylor's leadership, the Badgers would have likely been a fringe tourney team this season. With the senior leading, Sconny is a legit threat to knock off the Orange. He's that crucial to Wisconsin.
Outlook - It doesn't take an 'expert' to see that should Syracuse increase the game tempo, their odds to advance to their first Elite Eight since 2003 increase. SU can run while Wisconsin can't or won't. But given that Wisconsin rarely runs or commits turnovers, SU may have to win a slug fest (think Butler in 2010 but hopefully with a different result). The Orange may have to get a little 'dirty' to win. Which, at least for this Orange team, can be a good thing. In fact, despite what some people say, Syracuse may prefer a grimy defensive struggle.