After sneaking into the NCAA tournament, the Syracuse Orange have steamrolled their way to the Sweet 16, defeating Dayton by 19 and Middle Tennessee by 25. While Syracuse certainly looked impressive in each of those wins, both Dayton and Middle Tennessee could be considered favorable matchups for Syracuse. Not because of their seeding (both fans and experts alike put too much emphasis on a team's seed), but due to the fact neither Dayton nor Middle Tennessee could take advantage of Syracuse's biggest weakness: lack of size.
Syracuse doesn't have a single player taller than 6' 9" on its roster. The Orange have three big men who see minutes, but all of whom come with their own deficiencies. Dajuan Coleman is the team's starting center and biggest player in terms of size, he stands at 6' 9" and 255 pounds. Coleman, however, averages less than 18 minutes of playing time per game.
Both Tyler Roberson and Tyler Lydon are listed as 6' 8" forwards and average 30.5 and 30.3 minutes, respectively. Roberson, however, is a liability on offense and is so maddeningly inconsistent overall that here is always a risk he may end up back in head coach Jim Boeheim's doghouse. Lydon, on the other hand, is a dependable shooter who can stretch a defense all the way to the three-point line with his shot, but can be bullied inside on the opposite end due to his slender frame.
As a result, Syracuse has struggled against teams who have reliable big men and are able to bully the Orange in the paint (See: Louisville).
However neither Dayton nor Middle Tennessee were able to use this to their advantage. Dayton's tallest player, Steve McElvene, who stands at 6' 11", is a bench player who saw less than 20 minutes of action during Dayton's 70-51 loss. Middle Tennessee's tallest player is 6' 9" Karl Gamble. Gamble played just nine minutes in the Blue Raiders blowout loss, and recorded only one more rebound, two, than personal fouls, one.
Unfortunately for Syracuse, Gonzaga doesn't have this problem. Not only does Gonzaga have size, but they have arguably the most dominant big man remaining in the NCAA tournament, Domantas Sabonis. Sabonis, who hails from Lithuania and is the son of NBA Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis, stands at a towering 6' 11" and 240 pounds.
Sabonis is able to use his size to not only dominate the glass, he averages 11.7 rebounds per game, but also convert high percentage shots from inside the arc, he averages 17.5 points per game while shooting above 60 percent from the field. The sophomore big man has also developed into the anchor of Gonzaga's stingy defense, one that held then-red hot Seton Hall and Utah to just 52 and 59 points, respectively, in Gonzaga's first two games of the NCAA tournament.
Against Seton Hall, Sabonis simply overpowered the Pirates, finishing with 21 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, two blocks, and a steal. Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard said after the game that Sabonis was the "toughest matchup we've had this year." Willard also credited Sabonis' physical presence saying, "he was much more physical than he looked on film."
While Sabonis certainly opened up some eyes by laying waste to Seton Hall's frontcourt on the national stage, his performance against Utah was arguably even more impressive. Going up against 7' 1" Jakob Poeltl, a projected top-10 selection in the upcoming 2016 NBA Draft, Sabonis was supposed to be overmatched. Poeltl is the future NBA Draft lottery pick, while Sabonis didn't even begin the year as a starter.
No matter, Sabonis took him to school.
The Lithuanian Nightmare finished the game with 19 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, two steals, and a block. In addition, Sabonis' superior offense and lockdown defense resulted in Poeltl suffering arguably the worst game of his two-year career. The future lottery pick could only muster up five points, four rebounds, two assists, and one block.
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said after the game he thought Poeltl seemed frustrated because he wasn't able to bully Sabonis like he usually is able to when battling with other big men.
"I think those first couple of times Poeltl hit [Sabonis] it was like, O.K., this is a little different deal," Few said. "He's [also] quicker than he looks on tape, and he's got the best footwork I've ever seen from a big kid–he can pivot [and] move all day without traveling. ... And forget all that, talk to any of these coaches in this tournament: all you want is a guy with a heart like that, that just goes so hard every possession. That's the greatest attribute that he has. It's inspiring."
If Sabonis is able to perform like that against a player as talented as Poeltl, Syracuse fans may be panicking when thinking of what he could potentially do against the likes of Roberson, Lydon, and Coleman.
We'll have to wait a bit longer to find out, as Syracuse and Gonzaga don't tip-off until 9:40 p.m. Friday night. Get your popcorn ready.