The Syracuse Orange are one of just four teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament's Midwest Regional. While two of those teams, the 1-seed Virginia Cavaliers and 4-seed Iowa State Cyclones, are expected, their counterparts on the opposite side of the bracket are quite the opposite. Syracuse and its Sweet 16 opponent, the Gonzaga Bulldogs, are the field's lone remaining double-digit seeds. It's funny how things work out.
And it could be funnier still if Syracuse manages to beat the Zags. In no part of the NCAAs have the Orange or any team ever had their choice of opponent. But what if they did?
If SU had its choice of Gonzaga, Virginia and Iowa State, which route would be the best one for a team with streaky shooting, one assured star player (Michael Gbinije) and minimal strength on the inside?
1. Iowa State
This isn't a commentary about the Cyclones' abilities or the strength (or lack thereof) of the Big 12. Rather, it's just a matter of playing your odds. ISU plays a fast-paced game that relies heavily on three-point shooting. Syracuse's zone has regularly shut down fast-paced games that rely heavily on three-point shooting. Obviously the caliber of athlete on the 4-seed Iowa State roster could be considered a bit higher than that of Middle Tennessee. But teams that rely on threes are the ones Jim Boeheim likes to see the most. Every so often the Orange get burned, but by and large, they're the favorite type of opponent for the 2-3 zone.
Again, not a condemnation of talent or legitimacy. Far from it. The Hoos play a brand of basketball we dislike. And one that seemingly has us figured out. That said, by way of familiarity and perhaps betting on their shooting just going cold, there's the chance that you finally catch UVa after numerous tries. We've covered why previous meetings between Virginia and Syracuse have gone the way they have. They seem to hit threes at the right time, while bludgeoning the middle of the zone. And their defense can shut down SU's best offensive option. They've controlled the second half against us in a similar fashion to what the Orange have done to tournament opponents thus far. You don't want to face them. But at least you know how to face them already this year.
Oh. Damn. As our own Ari Gilberg pointed out earlier, Domantas Sabonis is a problem in the middle, even if Syracuse is able to make stops. And that's before you even get to fellow big and all-around standout Kyle Wiltjer, who can also attack this zone's center with efficiency. The guards aren't much to brag about. But the Bulldogs possess the sort of size that Dayton and Middle Tennessee completely lacked. In games against Seton Hall and Utah, respectively, Gonzaga was able to do what it wanted down low. The Utes were even supposed to have answers there. They just didn't. This doesn't make Gonzaga impossible to beat. It just makes it a bit more daunting for the Orange than the other two opponents may be on paper.
Again, SU doesn't get to choose its opponents. No one does. You take the draw as it comes in this tournament. Sometimes that's in your favor. And if it is, it's still up to you to take advantage of it. The Orange are far from toast because Gonzaga, it's least-favorable opponent, is its first draw in Chicago. If they manage to beat the Bulldogs on Friday, they're from assured a Final Four trip should Iowa State be waiting on Sunday.
Expectations and what's favorable haven't mattered a bit through two rounds of this thing. Even if we have our preferences, why should we get tied up in those now? And in the same breath, and if only because it doesn't actually matter: Why shouldn't we?