Whether America likes it or not, the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team not only made the NCAA Tournament with some ease, but then unexpectedly advanced two rounds to another Sweet 16. And now they’re one of just four teams that could advance to the Final Four out of the Midwest Region.
We know we’re facing the 2-seed Houston Cougars on Saturday, then we’ll see what happens from there. But if we were able to pick which Midwest squads Syracuse faced off with as they vie for a regional championship, who are the most- and least-desirable options?
Ranking from the team you’d most want to play first:
There’s a good conversation to be had about Syracuse’s advancement in the tournament coming from a lack of shot luck for opponents. But Oregon State’s in a similar boat. Through two games, Beavers opponents are just 24% from three (13-of-55) and 31% from the floor overall (39-for-128). Oregon State’s been shooting well themselves, but that’s still incredible to see such struggles for power conference foes Tennessee and Oklahoma State.
The Beavers aren’t typically this sort of team (69th in defensive efficiency), and they aren’t more than a top-75 team in terms of rebounding or shooting the basketball. However, they’ve been a much hotter team in the paint in March — hitting 70.4% of tries at the rim and 54% in the lane. It’s something to watch. But their chances largely require them to perform well above the average for the season.
2. Houston Cougars
This isn’t to take away from Houston, who’s a 2-seed. But Dejon Jarreau’s hip pointer could pose a real challenge for this offense, and Rutgers really gave them everything they could handle in the second round. The Cougars rely heavily on being very physical inside, which works if refs avoid calls. But Syracuse is a very good free throw shooting team (78%), and Houston can go cold at times — something that’s posed an issue for previous Orange opponents in this tournament.
Based on some of the feedback Kevin Brown shared on this week’s podcast, UH also seems less likely to press, which can only help SU. This won’t be an easy matchup, and I don’t want to oversimplify things. Houston’s still not an ideal team to play given their offensive emphasis inside the arc (with enough ability to hit from outside, at 35% on the year).
3. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers
Loyola isn’t the top remaining seed in the region, but you could also argue they were wildly miscast as an 8-seed. The Ramblers are rated the top defense in the country by KenPom (certainly influenced by conference play emphasis) and top-40 offense. That said, they hit 36% of their threes and nearly 58% of their twos, which is fourth in the country. Cameron Krutwig could pose a major problem there as he creates foul trouble for Syracuse and collapses the zone in. Against Georgia Tech and Illinois, he’s a combined 13-for-24 (all from two), though he hasn’t necessarily gotten to the line a ton.
The Ramblers definitely grind games down from a pace perspective, but can hit big shots when called upon. There are some UVA vibes here, even if not with the same talent level. Loyola’s well coached and know what they want to do in a given game. Since they’re healthy, they probably pose a bigger threat to SU’s Final Four dreams.
Again, we don’t have a choice. But if Loyola loses to Oregon State and Syracuse can beat Houston, we wind up facing the two most-desired opponents — even if the distance between those teams (especially Loyola and Houston) isn’t all that large.
In 2018, we went through this exercise and got derailed in the Sweet by Duke, the team we least wanted to play. And in 2016, despite facing the two squads we were least “likely” to find success against (Gonzaga, Virginia), we wound up making it to the Final Four anyway.
The big difference this year vs. those seasons is a lack of SU familiarity among the remaining squads. No guarantee of success, of course. Still, it at least serves as a cause for optimism going into the weekend.