Time to embrace it: This Orange team has gone from increasingly frustrating and disappointing, to downright fun and exciting. And it happened over just two games. If they can pull it off and earn a trip to the Elite Eight by beating Gonzaga tonight, here’s how and why it will happen.
1. They are the Underdog
Last I checked, Vegas had the Orange as a five-point underdog, despite being the higher seed. After being the favorite in the first two games, and winning in dominating fashion, it’s kind of fitting to revert back to underdog status. After all, they were a huge underdog to make the tournament in the first place. It’s not easy to continually get psyched for playing lower seeds. Granted Gonzaga isn’t your typical 11 and has a storied history, but I still think being overlooked by the odds makers could be the extra bit of motivation to come out swinging.
2. The Zone
Gonzaga coach Mark Few estimated that the Bulldogs have played maybe 30 possessions ALL SEASON against a zone defense. Enter the famed Boeheim 2-3 that had the 11th ranked 3-point defense in the nation this season at 30.4%. That was accomplished while battling the best of the best in the ACC, teams who have seen the zone now for a few years. 6-10 senior forward Kyle Wiltjer is a 49% shooter from three and could be a problem, if he were more accustomed to the zone. As it stands, I anticipate the frantic trapping and closing out will disturb his flow.
A big problem for the Orange earlier in the season, rebounding advantage was a source of strength in the first two NCAA victories. Assuming the zone does its job, Tyler Roberson and Dajuan Coleman will need to keep Domantas Sabonis off the offensive glass. Arvydas’s son averages 3 offensive boards per game, which would scare me had the Orange not outrebounded its opponents by over 10 boards per game in the first two victories. Gonzaga is an excellent rebounding team as well, so second chances will be hard to come by in this one.
4. Cooney and Gbinije
Syracuse’s senior leaders are making the most of their borrowed time. Trevor Cooney is picking his spots better than he had all season, shooting 40% from three on 6-15 shooting. He’s going to need to continue to be smart and pick his spots against Gonzaga’s 5th ranked 3-point shooting defense (29.7%). Michael Gbinije struggled against Dayton, shooting just 3-for-11, but stepped up big against Middle Tennessee State with a 10-for-14 performance en route to 23 points. Both players have been through the ringer in their careers and you can expect neither wants to stop playing now.
As is the norm with Boeheim coached teams, only seven players have seen court time in the tournament. Five have reached at least 12 points in one of the games, and Dajuan Coleman scored 8 in 16 minutes against MTSU. Any one of Gbiije, Cooney, Malachi Richardson, Tyler Lydon, and Tyler Roberson are capable of stepping up and making big plays and taking the reigns as needed. Having that type of balance will bode well against a tough defensive team like the Zags.
It’s going to be a fight between two pretty evenly matched double-digit seeds, which is what March Madness is all about. But I’d bet on the underdog.