I had the chance to catch up with former Syracuse Orange player Ryan Blackwell to talk about Syracuse's Sweet Sixteen run and what he thinks the Orange have to do to advance to the Elite Eight. We also talked about his first season as head coach of the Liverpool Warriors. More on that below. Let's dive right in:
James Szuba: First things first, you're coming off a great first season as head coach of Liverpool. How would you describe your first year in Section III and how were you guys so successful?
Ryan Blackwell: My first season couldn't have gone any better. We had a great group of kids who were hungry and motivated. Our senior leadership with Tyler Sullivan, the Cutlers, etc. was great and they responded to myself and Coach Shawn Muller really well.
JS: In the section championship you lost Sullivan early in the game and eventually lost 49-37. How did you guys handle that adversity and what did you tell your team?
RB: Tyler going down early really hurt us. That's equivalent to your starting QB going down in football. We really struggled offensively after that but we still had a chance only being down six going into the fourth quarter. I told my guys we'd have to win it on the defensive end and we did a good job of keeping it close on that end but couldn't make shots and we had our worst shooting night of the season...
JS: Our own Andrew Carey is a Liverpool alum and wants to know, how do you replace guys like Sullivan and the Cutler twins? Will Nas handle the ball for you more next season?
RB: It's tough to lose that much production with Tyler and the Cutlers leaving but we'll be more post/front-court oriented. We'll probably have the biggest team in the section. Nas Johnson will play a larger role along with Devan Mederios, Cooper Chaffee, etc. But like any new season we will have to get guys like Charles Meile to step up as a senior and help fill the void at PG. He's one of the few guys I'm confident will step up at the guard spots...
JS: We've talked before about how important it is to keep your team loose. How do you keep your guys loose but get them to lock in once the ball is tipped?
RB: I think it's true that teams take the identity of their coach and that couldn't be more true this season. I've always been the type to have fun and stay loose right up until tip-off and this season was no different. Whether it was cracking jokes in the locker room before games, playing music or whatever. They could always tell I was loose and confident but focussed at the same time and that carried over.
JS: Alright, let's segue into Syracuse Basketball. First, what was your reaction when you found out Syracuse was a No. 10 seed on Selection Sunday?
RB: I was on an airplane heading to Bali when I checked the internet and found out. I was obviously happy and a little shocked. We just didn't know what the NCAA was going to do after everything that had happened in the past year. I felt if they took Boeheim's absence into consideration that we had a good chance to get in because we beat some good teams and played well when he coached.
JS: Syracuse held Dayton and Middle Tennessee to under 33 percent from the field in both games. What is it about the 2-3 zone that makes it so hard for teams to make shots?
RB: Well nobody practices/plans to play a 2-3 zone that has the size/length and traps all over like SU... for a whole game at that! That's SU's staple but once in the tournament teams don't have a whole lot of time to prepare or simulate our unique zone. Most teams are used to practicing their man-to-man sets and it totally throws them off and end up taking tough shots...
JS: As a player, what was the hardest concept for you to learn in the zone?
RB: The zone wasn't necessarily tough for me to play and we played some man-to-man when I played. We had a pretty good defensive team with Jason Hart at the top and Etan Thomas in the middle. I think the biggest keys were communicating and knowing where to rotate/shift when the ball moved and to stay active and not be lazy in the zone.
JS: You played against Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament while you were at Syracuse. Were you hoping to see Syracuse get Sparty in the second round or were you happier to see Middle Tennessee?
RB: Obviously Michigan State had a great team this season and who knows what would have happened had we played them but they were definitely a more formidable opponent in my eyes than MTSU. You have to have a little luck in the tournament and we may have gotten lucky not having to play the Spartans.
JS: What does Syracuse have to do against Gonzaga to advance to the Elite Eight?
RB: Gonzaga is big and skilled on the interior. We can't let them have a field day in the paint scoring or rebounding... have to win the defensive battle and limit their second chance shots. Offensively we have to be in attack mode and mix it up getting to the basket and taking perimeter shots...
JS: What do you think is the most impressive thing about Syracuse's Sweet 16 run?
RB: I think the margin of victory and the way we've pulled away. Most games have gone to the wire but we've handled our two opponents so far and the defense has been great.
JS: Lastly, what are your plans for the game Friday? Are you going to Sake Bomb or Tully's?
RB: Haha.. I think I'll be at Attilio's for this one!!!!!