The East Region’s top seed, Indiana, poses a steep test for Syracuse in their Sweet Sixteen matchup of the NCAA Tournament. The Hoosiers started the season atop both national polls and feature two star players, center Cody Zeller, who was a preseason national player of the year candidate, and forward Victor Oladipo, who is currently a national player of the year candidate. Indiana enters the game with a 29-6 record, but all of those losses came to teams who made the tourney. The fourth-seeded Orange, who bring a 28-9 mark to the game, bring a similar stat in that eight of their nine losses to teams who joined them in the tournament. (The ninth team, Connecticut, was ineligible for the postseason, but finished 20-10, including 10-8 in the Big East, and was in solid shape to get an NCAA Tournament berth, as well, especially with at least one win in the Big East Tournament.)
In short, both teams are very good and deserve to still be playing at this point. The numbers may tell us what to expect from Thursday night’s game, including the chances of Syracuse pulling off the upset.
(Author’s note: For purposes of this article, the phrase “high-level games” will refer to a total of 25 Syracuse games that establish team or player performance against teams that are from high mid-major and major conferences. These are SU’s games against San Diego State, Arkansas, and Temple, all 18 Big East regular season games, four Big East Tournament games, and the two previous NCAA Tournament games. Other references will specify either a team’s full slate of games or just their respective conference matchups.)
When Indiana is in their half-court offense:
Indiana proved to be one of the best offenses in college basketball this season, ranking second in the country at 1.17 points per possession and atop statistician Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. If advanced statistics make you queasy with memories of algebra class, try these simple ones: the Hoosiers are third nationally in scoring at 79.5 points per game, sixth in field goal percentage at 48.5 percent, and third in three-point accuracy at 40.8 percent. They put the ball in the bucket. A lot.
Therefore, the 2-3 zone of Syracuse will face their stiffest test of the year. The zone has been strong this season, holding down the #12 slot in points allowed per possession in the country at 0.90 and ranking tenth by Pomeroy’s numbers on defense. The simple numbers project a similar picture, permitting 59.4 points per game, boasting the third-best field goal percentage defense in the country at 37.3 percent, and allowing a mere 28.9 percent success rate from beyond the arc. This end will be a matchup of strength versus strength.
What do the Orange have to worry about? Three-point shooters. Three Hoosier starters converted at well over 40 percent from behind the arc on the season. Jordan Hulls led the way with 80 three-pointers at a 46.0 percent rate, followed by Christian Watford making 58 triples while shooting 48.3 percent from behind the arc, and Victor Oladipo making 29 treys at a 43.3 percent clip. For good measure, Will Sheehey made 28 threes off the bench and a fourth starter, Yogi Ferrell, made 23 more. The Orange guards will likely start the game setting up the top of the zone with their heels either on the three-point line or even further from the basket to take away good looks from deep. Both they and the wings will have to play the full forty minutes with arms up and hustling legs to challenge perimeter shots with urgent defensive rotations.
How does Indiana those three-point shooters get open? Cody Zeller is a complete player down low. The seven-foot center averages 16.7 points a game, in large part by shooting 57.1 percent from the floor. He is comfortable operating near the foul line as well as on the low block, so SU defenders need to be aware of his presence at all times. Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita will primarily be tasked with limiting Zeller, likely denying entry passes to him at the free throw line instead of waiting for him to make the catch before coming up to defend. Establishing this early defensive presence in the possession will allow the guards to stick with the perimeter shooters in their area instead of collapsing to take away the high post entry pass. The centers will also need to be there to limit Zeller’s passing ability, as he is smart with the ball and willing to hit open teammates spotting up for three-pointers or cutting to the basket.
That duo of Christmas and Keita needs to be careful on defense, however, as Zeller is knocking down his free throws at a 75.9 percent clip. Given the propensity of the two big men to commit fouls (Christmas committed 5.18 fouls per 40 minutes and Keita 5.98 fouls per 40 minutes in high level-games on the season), Zeller could dominate the game solely by shooting when the Orange are not allowed to defend.
Zeller also will sprint the length of the court all game long, looking for fast break opportunities. The Orange will need to keep a man on him to take away these transition chances.
When Syracuse is in their half-court offense:
The Orange will look to exploit their size advantage on the outside to get good opportunities against Indiana, who ranks 20th in the country in field goal percentage allowed. Three of SU’s four perimeter starters will enjoy a significant height and length advantage over their defensive counterpart. Indiana’s starting guards, Hulls and Ferrell, are both listed at 6’0” and a within a couple pounds of the 180 mark. Michael Carter-Williams is a lanky 6’6” and Brandon Triche a sculpted 6’4” and 210 pounds. The former should be able to use his long body to shield off defenders on drives and see over the top of his man to make passes while the latter should be able to angle his shoulders to bull into the key for drives, as well as get pull-up jumpers and floaters. Triche, in particular, will have to be careful to avoid getting called for charges. His bulk, not to mention his off arm, which he uses to protect the ball while dribbling, will likely make Indiana defenders bounce off him at times during his forays to the rim.
One of the two starting forwards will also enjoy a height advantage, as both C.J. Fair and James Southerland are 6’8” while their Hoosier counterparts, Oladipo and Watford, are 6’5” and 6’9”. Oladipo was honored as the Defensive Player of the Year by the Big Ten, so he is likely to draw the assignment of Fair, the more complete offensive player for the Orange. This will allow Watford to stay close to Southerland and use his similar size to try to distract from the long bomber’s jump shot.
Fair, who still needs to polish his handle, will be challenged on his drives to the basket by Oladipo, who came up with over two steals a game. The lanky lefty, however, should still be able to back down and work his way into the key for his assortment of fakes and short shots, as well as sneak around for his 15-to-17-foot jumper that is nearly automatic. If Carter-Williams is able to penetrate the key, these shots should be available for Fair on kick-out passes when help defense collapses toward him.
Southerland will likely be used the way he was in the Big East Tournament coming off both simple screens and double screens to get open looks at threes. The most basic of these starts with the ball-handling guard out top, who passes to the other guard on the right wing, then cuts left to screen for Southerland on the wing near the sideline. Southerland loops high around the screen toward the top of the key, staying well outside the three-point line on his route. Ideally, Indiana will switch defenders on the screen, resulting in one of their guards chasing Southerland. As Southerland nears the center of the court, the guard stationed on the right wing passes to him. Southerland gets to step into a rhythm shot with a clean look, as he is defended by someone eight inches shorter than he after the defensive switch (or is trailed by the screened defender). Look for a variation of this play as well where Southerland and Fair are stationed near the left corner of the floor and the play unfolds the same way, only Fair sets an initial screen, as well. Southerland must be sharp with these cuts and not allow the defender to catch up and try to strip the ball when Southerland elevates for his release.
Similar to the opening possessions of recent games, look for the Orange to try to get Christmas involved in the low post with a touch or two. While Zeller is a seven-footer, he is neither a strongman nor a dominant shot-blocker. If Christmas can get a score or two in the opening minutes, it could help get him engaged and active in the game, not to mention hanging an early foul on Zeller would certainly not hurt the Syracuse cause.
Hoosier advantage: The free throw line
Indiana is one of the top free throw shooting teams in the nation, ranking 24th in the country at 74.7 percent as a team. Tack on that they are excellent at drawing fouls, averaging getting 20.5 whistles their way leading to 25.1 free throws a game (third in the nation), and it adds up to a lot of simple points for the Hoosiers. While the 2-3 zone reduces the amount of fouls the Orange collectively commit, the centers’ proclivity to earn whistles could lead to some difficult decisions for Jim Boeheim.
There is also no obvious choice of a player to foul on Indiana in a late-game situation, as their starters all shoot over 75 from the free throw line. Sheehey, the most frequently used reserve, is the best choice for SU to send to the stripe if he in on the floor, but he still has made 65.9 percent of his attempts on the year. If the Orange trail late, the Hoosiers’ proficiency at the line could end their season.
One area where SU has an edge on the Hoosiers is in forcing turnovers and generating other transition opportunities. The Orange are the more athletic of the two teams, forcing turnovers on 23.5 percent of all their opponents possessions on the season and even held the same mark in conference play. Indiana turned it over on 19.0 percent of their possessions and that rate actually went up to 19.4 percent of their possessions in Big Ten games. The Hoosiers were particularly susceptible to steals, giving the ball directly to the opposition on 10.2 percent of their possessions in conference play. That plays into SU’s hands, as the Orange came up with steals on 13.4 percent of their opponents’ plays, both in conference action and over the entire season. The Syracuse zone should be able to generate a couple extra offensive possessions on the defensive end with their long arms, possibly leading to transition points.
Those long arms of Syracuse should also continue to defend the basket well. The Orange were tied for second in the nation by blocking 11.3 percent of their opponents’ shots from the floor and actually upped that mark to 13.2 percent in Big East action. Indiana was susceptible to the blocked shot against tougher competition, getting their field goal tries snuffed out on 8.0 percent of their attempts in Big Ten games. SU’s web of long arms collapsing in the lane on opponents posting up or driving to the basket should result in a couple more offensive opportunities, as well. If the Orange can turn these extra possessions into some easy points by getting out and running, an extra six or eight points will add up.
Secret key player of the game: Baye Moussa Keita
Keita’s ability to run seemingly all day will be needed by Syracuse to counteract Cody Zeller’s effort in transition, as well as race up and down the key to guard the Indiana big man when he tries to establish position, especially at the soft spot in the zone at the free throw line. Keita also is likely to be the target of Indiana fouls instead of being permitted the occasional dunk or lay-up. In his last four games, the reserve center is 18-of-24 from the line for a 75.0 percent mark. His career line before then reads 49-of-92 for a 53.3 percent success rate. Indiana is likely to treat the recent small sample as an aberration and make Keita earn every point at the line.
With the high stakes of this game, Jim Boeheim is likely to coach this game with minimal tolerance for mistakes. Should Rakeem Christmas make an early mistake on defense, ranging from a bad foul to missing a box-out to being beaten on transition defense by Zeller for a bucket, Boeheim will be sending Keita to the check in on the double. Keita should plan on seeing heavy minutes.
(To be fair, Christmas will not be the only SU player on the hot seat. Trevor Cooney and Jerami Grant will also be on the same short leash when they get their opportunities in the first half. Failing to show trustworthiness will merit a quick return to the bench to stay, with only significant foul trouble to a starter being the only way back onto the floor.)
In closing, this matchup between Syracuse and Indiana is one of two strong teams who play well on both ends of the floor. Easy points, both in transition and at the free throw line, will likely decide which team moves on to the Elite Eight. While not the favorites, and justifiably so, Syracuse has not just a chance, but a pretty good one, of springing the upset.