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Syracuse vs. Houston NCAA Tournament preview: Four things to watch

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Can Syracuse can the Cougars?

Syracuse v San Diego State Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Yes, the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team is once again in a surprising Sweet 16, and once again, they won’t be favored to win the matchup. That became an issue in 2018 vs. Duke, but not 2016 against Gonzaga. Let’s hope things wind up in our favor against the Houston Cougars on Saturday night.

As we get ready for the game — and watch a bunch of other games before this one tips off — here are a few things to watch when Syracuse takes on the Cougars.

Kevin: Patience on offense

Syracuse has been mostly moving the ball around to find the right matchups and open shots in these first two games. West Virginia’s defense wasn’t as good as their reputation and they caused the Orange problems when they weren’t ignoring Buddy Boeheim. Houston isn’t as big but they are athletic and tough and they will make things uncomfortable for Syracuse in this one. Can the Orange continue to spread the floor and move themselves into good looks or will they settle for contested jumpers? That’s going to be a key for this game.

John: Start fast (again)

There have been a lot of things that have worked well during the recent 5-1 stretch to extend this season into the Sweet 16, but one of the biggest ones has been starting fast. After struggling to score early for much of the season, Syracuse has been able to jump out to quick (started creating distance in first five or six minutes) leads against North Carolina, Clemson, NC State, Virginia and West Virginia — and while it took a little longer vs. SDSU, once they got out ahead, the Aztecs shots weren’t falling and they couldn’t catch up or adapt.

Another hot start vs. Houston could create more of the same. The Cougars are an efficient shooting team, but a slower and more plodding team in terms of pace. Taking them out of their game with more running and an emphasis on three-balls to make up ground could create the sort of landslide they’ll need to spring the upset.

Christian: Entering and Exiting the halftime locker room

I agree with John. A fast start is going to be incredibly important against a team that plays at the same slow pace that we’ve seen good defensive teams like Virginia and Clemson play at. However, I think the equally important time period is between the under-four media timeout of the first half and the under-16 media timeout of the second half. In the Virginia and West Virginia games, Syracuse strode out to quick leads, but the offensive efficiency dropped as the clock approached halftime.

That increased momentum that UVA and WVU got in the final four minutes of the first half was enough to claw away at Syracuse’s early lead. They used that to come out of the locker room firing and eventually retake the lead from the Orange. Syracuse can’t take a break and needs to stay offensive consistent throughout the whole game to advance.

Szuba: Rebound that basketball

Houston is fourth in the country in offensive rebounds per game (16.0). Syracuse is going to get out-rebounded playing the 2-3 zone, so the Orange will have to win in other areas by taking care of the basketball and continuing to make shots. That’s not to admit defeat on the glass — Syracuse still needs to mitigate second-chance opportunities as much as possible. I also look for this to be the kind of game suited for Quincy Guerrer. With Houston applying pressure on the perimeter, Syracuse should look to get Guerrier the ball inside where the Cougars don’t go very tall across the backline.