Coming off a tough loss to Connecticut in the semifinals of the Big East tournament, Syracuse landed a No. 3 seed in the East Region of the NCAA tournament. Sound familiar?
The year was 2003, and three weeks after receiving this draw the Orangemen hoisted their first national championship trophy. To see whether the 2011 Orange can repeat the feat, let’s keep in mind what it takes to beat them.
The conventional wisdom says the biggest key to beating Syracuse is sinking 3s. In Syracuse’s five regular-season losses this year, their opponents shot 47 percent from beyond the arc. This compares with the 31 three-point percent that Syracuse held its opponents to overall, good for 25th best in the country.
Syracuse will play Indiana State in the first round on Friday in Cleveland. The Sycamores come into the tournament hot, having won five straight and the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament to gain an automatic bid.
Indiana State shoots a respectable but hardly deadly 36.3 percent from 3. The two shooters Syracuse needs to watch out for are guards Aaron Carter and Jordan Printy. Printy shoots 48 percent from behind the arc, while Carter has hoisted a team-leading 141 threes at a 34.8 percent clip.
But recently Syracuse has done a better job closing out shooters and contesting shots. In its last six games, including the loss to UConn, Syracuse has held its opponents to just 29 percent from 3.
Ultimately, the Orange will be too good and too big for the Sycamores, whose tallest player is 6-foot-8. Expect the game to stay interesting, however. Indiana State played Notre Dame within single digits on the road early in the year, and it only trailed Purdue by two at the half of a game in December.
In Syracuse’s most recent loss, UConn managed to beat the Orange despite shooting 4-17 from downtown. They did it by exploiting Syracuse’s two other Achilles heels: free throw shooting and rebounding.
The Orange is not a bad rebounding team. It is 40th in the country at 37.8 rebounds-per-game and has a respectable +3.6 average rebound margin. But Syracuse has been outrebounded in four of its six losses.
This could mean trouble if it plays Xavier in the second round. The Musketeers have the size to bang down low with Rick Jackson and crew. Six-eight forward Jamel McLean leads Xavier in grabbing 8.4 boards per game, and 7-0, 269-pound center Kenny Frease adds 7.1 per game.
As a team, Xavier ranks fourth in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s effective height metric. It also boasts a +4.4 rebound margin and ranks 38th in the country with a 73.5 percent defensive rebound percentage. There’s a limit to how far these statistics can take you, however. Drexel leads the country in defensive rebounding percentage, and the Orange beat the Dragons by 28.
Xavier is not a good 3-point shooting team, and this will ultimately be its downfall if it matches up against Syracuse. At 33.3 percent, the Musketeers are 220th in the country from deep.
Only three Xavier players have attempted more than 15 threes on the year: leading-scorer Tu Holloway, Dante Jackson and Mark Lyons. The Orange will focus on Holloway, which leaves Jackson as the biggest threat. Although he has struggled in his senior season at 33.3 percent, Jackson hit 40 percent from deep last year and his 6-5 frame has the length to shoot over the zone.
First, Xavier will need to get by Marquette. Xavier comes in with a much higher RPI (22 vs. 63), but Marquette actually ranks ahead of Xavier in the KenPom (33 vs. 37). Statistically the teams are fairly evenly matched, so it should be a close game.
Although the Musketeers have made the Sweet 16 each of the last three seasons, Marquette will prevail bolstered by the experience it has gained in the Big East. While Xaiver beat up on Atlantic 10 teams the second half of the season, Marquette won five games against the RPI top 25. There is only one non-Big East team in the country, Florida, that can say the same.
This sets up a rematch of the game the Orange lost to Marquette back on Jan. 29 in Milwaukee. In that game, the undersized Jae Crowder stole the show, scoring 25 points to lead the Golden Eagles.
But the biggest reason for Syracuse’s defeat was that Marquette exploited the other Achilles heel exposed by UConn in the Big East Tournament: free throw shooting. The problem is not so much when Syracuse shoots poorly (although it did shoot only 57 percent in the first meeting) as much as when it allows the other team to get to the line.
On Jan. 29, Marquette shot 33 free throws and made 24 for a 16-point margin from the charity stripe. Syracuse did not even attempt 16 free throws. The game’s final margin was six, meaning that if the Orange had continued to shoot 57 percent from the line it would have won the game with 12 more free throw attempts. That would have given them a total of 26, still seven fewer than Marquette.
For those of you wondering, Jim Burr and Tim Higgins were not refereeing that game, but it is still difficult to imagine the Orange suffering a similar foul disparity in an NCAA tournament game.
The Orange will beat the Golden Eagles behind strong defense, a breakout game from Brandon Triche and Rick Jackson’s usual rock-like presence. This will set the stage for Syracuse’s third straight Sweet 16 where they will play North Carolina in a rematch of last year’s pre-season NIT. I’ll have more on that later in the week.