Welcome back to the 2021
DISRESPECK INVITATIONAL NCAA Tournament! As per usual, the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team returns to the field with much consternation attached.
We know our first, guaranteed opponent — the 6-seed San Diego State Aztecs. But they’re one of just 15 other teams in the Midwest region. Some of those we know a bit about already. Others, not so much. So it seems helpful to provide a rundown of every squad before the games get going.
Now, no matter how many of these teams we do or don’t wind up facing, at least you know what we’re getting into.
No. 1 Illinois Fighting Illini (23-6, 3rd in NET)
The Big Ten champs dispatched of Ohio State in overtime seconds before the selection show started. Illinois is one of the title favorites and among the more balanced teams in the country (top 10 in both KenPom offensive and defensive efficiency). They’re a lethal rebounding team, great shooting group both inside and beyond the arc, and have only lost once since mid-January. A matchup between Syracuse and Illinois would have to take place in the Elite Eight — something that most recently happened back in 1989 (an 89-86 loss).
No. 2 Houston Cougars (23-3, 5th in NET)
Like Illinois, Houston’s another excellent offensive team (eighth by efficiency on KenPom), and they’re not too shabby on defense either. A deeper dive into those numbers reveals just how good they are on that end, despite so much focus on their scoring. The Cougars are top-10 in opposing two-point percentage, three-point percentage, free throw percentage, and block percentage. A longshot Sweet 16 matchup would certainly test Syracuse considerably.
No. 3 West Virginia Mountaineers (18-9, 24th in NET)
Yes, this is a region full of top offenses — one of which is WVU (11th in efficiency). That said, unlike the two squads above, there are some trouble spots. The ‘Eers only hit 46% of their two-pointers and lean pretty heavy on free throws for scoring. West Virginia’s dangerous on the boards and players like Derek Culver (9.8 rebounds per game) are sure to give most opponents fits. Of course you’re familiar with this team. We shared a conference with them for decades. And would face off with them again if they also win their first round matchup.
No. 4 Oklahoma State Cowboys (20-8, 29th in NET)
The Cowboys have been on a tear of late, going 8-2 in their last 10 games, grabbing wins over Oklahoma (2x), Baylor, Texas Tech and West Virginia (2x) in there, among others. Oklahoma State is far from a one-player team, but... Cade Cunningham is exactly the sort of star who can carry his team in the tournament. State’s a decent rebounding group, but mostly an efficient two-point shooting squad. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen the Pokes in the NCAA Tournament (a second round game you might remember from 2003).
No. 5 Tennessee Volunteers (18-8, 13th in NET)
The Vols finished just 4-4 on the year, but largely lost to who they were supposed to and beat who they were supposed to in that stretch. They’re still a top-five defensive group (via KenPom), and absolutely smother teams inside the arc, allowing just 44.8% shooting from two. Tennessee also forces a lot of turnovers — on 22.9% of opposing possessions, in fact. We haven’t seen Tennessee in the NCAAs since all the way back in 1977.
No. 6 San Diego State Aztecs (22-4, 18th in NET)
SDSU hasn’t lost since January 16, and with minimal exceptions, they’ve largely dismantled all of their Mountain West foes in the process. The Aztecs play a plodding tempo, while suffocating teams defensively and shooting threes at a solid clip (37.5%). Ultimately, the game’s controlled by what Matt Mitchell and/or Jordan Schakel can do. San Diego State has a deeper bench, but those are the playmakers to know in advance. Also, don’t want to jinx things, but we’ve never lost to the Aztecs. Syracuse is 2-0 against them, with wins on an aircraft carrier (2012) and the 2007 NIT.
No. 7 Clemson Tigers (16-7, 41st in NET)
You know Clemson, of course, from the two times they’ve faced Syracuse this season. The home teams each won those games, and the Orange’s late season victory over the Tigers is at least a decent part of the resume that got them a play-in bye. Overall, Clemson is a guard-heavy group — but one that can rebound reasonably well. They don’t get to the line often and aren’t overly efficient shooting as a group. So ultimately, avoid fouls and see if they can beat you from deep. If SU can get to the Sweet 16, we’ve definitely rather face Clemson than Houston.
No. 8 Loyola Chicago Ramblers (22-4, 10th in NET)
Loyola is the No. 1 defense in the country, according to KenPom. Now, a good portion of that’s likely due to the level of competition in the Missouri Valley. But the Ramblers were a solid team all season with just two losses in this calendar year. Though they’re not a great team rebounding group (under 33 per game), center Cameron Krutwig creates some problems as the team’s top scorer, rebounder and facilitator. Perhaps interestingly, we haven’t faced the Ramblers at all since 1986. SU wouldn’t here unless they made it to the Elite Eight.
No. 9 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (17-8, 34th in NET)
Despite just seven ACC teams in the field, there are three in this region alone (Clemson, Tech and SU). Even if there are some caveats to Georgia Tech’s two-game ACC title last week, the Yellow Jackets have still won eight straight — including a seven-point win over the Orange. This offense is very good from two-point range (24th in the country by shooting percentage), and they’re prone to creating turnovers. Jose Alvarado and Moses Wright just create so many problems for opponents on both ends.
No. 10 Rutgers Scarlet Knights (15-11, 38th in NET)
After a hot start, Rutgers certainly made things interesting down the stretch while going 4-5 in the final nine games. Still, this is a top-20 defense with a ton of size that dares teams to try and beat them from outside. That has its advantages against plucky mid-majors, but won’t necessarily against a team like Clemson (or others in this region). We’re pretty familiar with the Scarlet Knights, given Syracuse suffered a 79-69 road loss to them earlier this year... admittedly without Buddy Boeheim in the lineup.
No. 11 Syracuse Orange (16-9, 40th in NET)
No need for introduction.
No. 12 Oregon State Beavers (16-12, 91st in NET)
The Beavers are not that good of a team, as you probably gathered based on the numbers above. Yet were able to pull off three straight upsets to win the Pac-12 Tournament, and had this weird habit all year of winning three in a row before losing two or three in a row. Oregon State isn’t overly adept at anything but free throw percentage, and is a bit of a one-man show led by Ethan Thompson. If they can find a way to stick around all the way to an incredibly strange Elite 8 matchup with Syracuse, it would be the first ever meeting between the teams.
No. 13 Liberty Flames (19-5, 86th in NET)
Removing other commentary about Liberty, the Flames are a slow and plodding team that shoots very efficiently from all over the floor. Liberty’s top 10 in the country in both two-point and three-point shooting percentage, and 41% of their scoring comes from beyond the arc. The caveats here come from the strength of schedule in the A-Sun and its impact on those numbers. The Flames did beat both Mississippi State and South Carolina, however.
WOKE UP. CHAMPS.— Morehead State Men's Basketball (@MSUEaglesMBB) March 7, 2021
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No. 14 Morehead State Eagles (21-7, 121st in NET)
The Ohio Valley champs beating West Virginia would obviously help Syracuse’s Sweet 16 chances immensely, should the Orange also advance. Morehead’s a big team inside, with guards that can also rebound. They can hit from three if called upon (35% on the year), but a largely a team that leans on twos, while avoiding pushing the pace. In all of 2021, they’ve lost just once (last month to Belmont). SU last faced the Eagles in the NCAA Tournament back in 1983, collecting a 74-59 win.
No. 15 Cleveland State Vikings (19-7, 160th in NET)
Cleveland State’s not so different from Morehead State, necessarily. They’re slower, drive the ball inside and are active on the offensive glass — maybe more so even, than the Eagles. The Vikings are a bit more guard heavy, and they’ll lean on Torrey Patton first and foremost for their firepower. They’re a team that could help Syracuse avoid a Sweet 16 matchup with Houston, should they advance that far. SU has only faced the Vikings once... a 72-69 loss at the Dome which featured a last-second shot for the win back in 2008.
No. 16 Drexel Dragons (12-7, 135th in NET)
A short season for Drexel doesn’t give us a ton to go off of. Still, the CAA champs are an efficient bunch on offense, emphasize strong shooting from inside the arc, and do crash the boards with some proficiency. None of that will necessarily be enough against top-seeded Illinois. Still, it’s worthwhile to note just the same. In the highly unlikely event SU and Drexel faced off in an Elite 8 matchup, it would be the second NCAA Tournament meeting between the schools (SU won, 69-58 back in 1996).
As you can see, this is a tough region. A lot of teams that present bad matchups for Syracuse, theoretically. And a bunch of squads with some weird history with the Orange as well.
Obviously our preferred outcome is winning this region. But anything else jump out at you here (other than Illinois being extremely good)?