How did Syracuse basketball get to the Sweet 16?

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Syracuse will play Gonzaga on Friday evening

It certainly was a pleasant surprise that Syracuse flipped their entire season on its ear in the span of 56 hours. Last week, I called the Orange winning a single NCAA Tournament game a bonus. Now, an Elite Eight bid is a possibility.

In their first two NCAA Tournament games, the Orange put together two second halves of basketball the likes of which have not been in a very long time.

First, in the tourney opener, SU dropped a 40-23 second half on Dayton, completely hammering the Flyers on the boards and snuffing out their offense. Then, on Sunday evening, Syracuse backed that up by outscoring Middle Tennessee State 44-17 over the final 18:30 of the game and the Blue Raiders tallied the last three points of the game to make that stat look just a little better for themselves.

Like they often do, the Orange have turned into a dominant defensive outfit in the NCAA Tournament. Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone is simply too hard for teams who are almost completely unfamiliar with it to prepare for on short notice. Conference foes who tangle with it once or twice a season year after year know how to attack it. Teams with a couple days to get ready can put together a solid plan for the zone, but lack both the practice time to properly implement said plan and the players who play it like SU does to accurately simulate it.

Syracuse’s two NCAA Tournament foes have shot 37-for-120 from the field against them in two games. That’s a 30.8 percent success rate and put a joke about my usage of the word “success” here. Outside the arc, Dayton and Middle Tennessee State combined to hit on 14-of-46 shots. That’s 30.4 percent from deep and repeat whatever joke you just made about the word “success”. SU simply has not given up much of anything in their two tourney games.

What you may not have noticed, though, is that the Orange are actually putting together their best stretch of offensive performances in a long while. SU has scored at least 70 points in their last six games, which includes contests at Louisville and North Carolina along with neutral site games with Pitt and Dayton.

» Related: Syracuse and the ACC bring ‘A’ game to NCAA Tournament

In fact, the last time the Orange posted 70 or more points in at least six straight games was in the 2012-2013 season when they reached that offensive plateau ten straight times early in the season. That squad would eventually reach #3 in the nation in late January… and ended up getting to the Final Four.

Dream for a couple seconds, then come on back.

More importantly, during this solid offensive streak, Syracuse has gotten to the 70-point plateau in multiple ways. In four of the six contests, they shot at least 46 percent from the field. The other two outings, SU was lights out from the line, hitting 19-of-23 and 20-of-23 from the stripe. (They’re at 73.7 percent from the line in the six games overall, including Tyler Lydon’s weird 0-for-4 start against MTSU. Prior to that, the Orange made 67.6 percent of their foul shots on the season.)

Getting back to that 70-point level, in their first 28 games, Syracuse got there 15 times and never more than three times in a row. The Orange did it in their early season roll in the Bahamas and again in the first three games of Mike Hopkins’ stretch as head coach.

As noted above, though, the Syracuse defense is quite some distance ahead of where they were under Hopkins. After all, they lost two of those three 70-point games, including giving up 84 points to St. John’s.

But that Battle for Atlantis Tournament… The Orange cruised past Charlotte, scrapped out a win against UConn, then rallied to beat a tough Texas A&M team that eventually earned a three-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Hey, those are a couple very good non-conference teams that the Orange beat in a tournament on a neutral court.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. A very tough task stands in front of Syracuse.

Gonzaga has won their last seven games, including a 23-point pounding of 3-seed Utah to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, and is ranked #9 in the nation in offensive efficiency. They are led by sweet-shooting forward Kyle Wiltjer and center Domantas Sabonis, one of the nation’s best scorers and rebounders.

The ‘Zags have a powerful offense, averaging nearly 80 points per game on the season on great shooting – 48.7 percent from the field (12th in the nation), 75.8 percent at the line (14th in the nation) and 38.0 percent on three-pointers (a mere 37th in the country). Shutting that machine down will be a tough task.

Gonzaga is also a very strong rebounding bunch, grabbing just over 55 percent of all rebounds in their games this season. As a reference point, a couple teams with similar rebounding rate to the ‘Zags that SU has played this season are North Carolina and Pitt. Let’s not get into that right now.

The Bulldogs are not puffing up that stat against the West Coast Conference, either. While the WCC isn’t an elite conference with quality teams up and down the standings, the Bulldogs’ rebounding rate is the same in and out of conference play.

To be sure, heading into one of their toughest games of the season, the Orange are peaking at the right time. Hopefully, they can keep it up and keep that season going.

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Jim Stechschulte

About Jim Stechschulte

A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.
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