The Syracuse Orange are in the Sweet 16, and also the second-chalkiest regions remaining. As an 11-seed, SU was the lone major surprise in the Midwest. It wouldn’t have been a stretch to project seeing the No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks, No. 2 Duke Blue Devils or No. 5 Clemson Tigers here at all.
Syracuse doesn’t have its choice of opponents, and they’ll face Duke on Friday night. But if they were able to pick between those three teams (all repeat opponents from the regular season), which would be the most- and least-desirable?
Ranking them from the one you’d want to play most first:
1. Clemson Tigers
For one, Syracuse has already beaten the Tigers and knows the 2-3 zone has stymied this attack before. Clemson shot 40 percent against SU, and 5-of-16 from three. They were outrebounded by a handful and turned the ball over enough times (12) to help make the difference in a 55-52 defeat for the Tigers. Clemson doesn’t have the same abilities inside without Donte Grantham (who was also absent for the regular season contest), but are a stout defensive squad. The Tigers were a popular upset pick in the tournament, yet clamped down on two straight opponents and now could give Kansas a run for their money in the other Sweet 16 game.
2. Kansas Jayhawks
KU dispatched Syracuse without much trouble back in early December, winning 76-60 down in Miami. But a couple notes on that: this was still largely a three-player offense at the time, one player (Devonte’ Graham) got ridiculously hot from three, and they still didn’t really have an answer inside. Kansas’s game is threes, by and large. And while that extends the zone, you also have to hit them for an outside shooting strategy to work against the Orange. It hasn’t for any of SU’s last three opponents. They’re not easy to beat, obviously. But the Jayhawks present fewer opportunities for exploiting Syracuse’s issues and potential foul trouble inside.
3. Duke Blue Devils
As you’ve probably heard already, Duke’s pretty good. And they play a zone defense similar to Syracuse’s, which has somehow flummoxed the Orange despite playing against it in practice every day. A 60-44 grind of a win for the Blue Devils this season shows that not only can Duke beat SU, but they can beat them at their own slog of a style. Last time around, SU tried to shoot their way back in from beyond the arc and that was the nail in the coffin. The Blue Devils also have the sort of size inside — Marvin Bagley III and Wendall Carter Jr. -- that’s sure to create problems for the Orange big men. If Duke just attacks the inside of the SU zone, they’re likely to snag a win here (we said the same for MSU, but they never really did it).
Again, we’re aware that Syracuse has no choice in this matter. But like last time, it’s worth a quick look at what the rest of our region looks like, assuming we have a chance to move on to the Elite Eight. We went through a similar exercise two years ago with similar results. The toughest opponents for the Orange that time around were Virginia and Gonzaga, yet we beat both (Iowa Stat was the perceptively easiest foe).
Could we do the same this time around? I’m a little less optimistic about it than last time, especially considering we have to face Duke first. But there aren’t many of us that expected Syracuse to win three games in five days last week (including one against Michigan State) either. So I guess, why can’t we pull this off too?