The Cougars play man-to-man, preferring not to switch on defense, but chase on screen action off the ball, either trailing or going underneath, just as first round opponent San Diego State did. However, Houston plays a much more adrenalized style than the Aztecs, doubling aggressively in the post and on the perimeter in pick-and-roll action. defense fully rotates behind the double team, creating a passing lane for the most difficult pass. The Cougars then lie in wait for steals.
However, the double teams do not always stay, as the second defender will sometimes return to his original assignment of the ballhandler remains patient and in control of the ball, perhaps backing away from the double team. The rotations then reverse, taking defenders back to their primary assignments.
This ultra-aggressive defense eats up chunks of the shot clock by not allowing ballhandlers to be comfortable and those double-teams force safer passes away from the basket, whether returning the ball from the post to the perimeter or forcing side-to-side passing on the perimeter instead of allowing opponents to get into the interior. In addition to the traditional double-teams in the post, perimeter players will cheat down to swipe at the ball, looking to create turnovers.
The aggression reaps benefits, as Houston generates 8.2 steals per game and they rank 12th in the nation in steal rate, taking the ball away on 12.3 percent of all possessions (ranking just ahead of San Diego State and slightly ahead of Syracuse). They also chase blocked shots with their athletic bigs and are fourth in the nation in block rate (just ahead of SU, who is sixth).
The downside of that cranked up Cougar defense is they also commit a large number of fouls. Houston’s opponents on the season have a free throw rate of .413, which means they shoot over four free throw attempts for every ten field goal attempts. This is the 14th-highest mark in the country. Syracuse, in comparison, has an opponent free throw rate of .241.
If that still confuses you, the Cougars have watched their opponents shoot 615 foul shots this season, the fourth-most in Division One. That is 21.2 free throw attempts per game for their opponents.
The Orange will once again bring their forwards up above the break in their 2-3 zone base formation to take away the three-point shot. Houston wants to take three-pointers, so SU will obviously look to take them away or at least raise the level of difficulty, sacrificing interior help.
Guards are likely to once again come down after the shot to help in rebounding as they have in the two previous tournament games. Joe Girard III leads the Orange in rebounding in the NCAA’s, grabbing six boards in each contest, and Buddy Boeheim has chipped in seven in the two contests. Even with some help from the guards, SU’s opponents have grabbed 38.6 percent of possible offensive rebounds in the two NCAA Tournament games. Sending everyone to the glass while sacrificing the occasional transition opportunity to try to limit second chances again seems likely.
Collapsing on the defensive boards should help neutralize a little offense from the Houston big men. The Syracuse frontline of Marek Dolezaj, Alan Griffin, and Quincy Guerrier, with Robert Braswell off the bench, have combined for 107 blocks on the season without being tremendous face-up shotblockers. Rather, most of that work has come as help-side defenders who take advantage of unsuspecting shooters. Mucking it up inside has helped that group collect 11 blocks in the tournament already.
On offense, the Orange must be strong and decisive with the ball. Houston double teams come quickly, so a ballhandler must react immediately to either escape, move the ball, or wait for the second defender to retreat. In pick-and-roll scenarios, those double teams can also be beaten quickly with an immediate pass to the screener on the roll. Guards and wings must value the ball and know where the next pass should go before the second defender arrives.
Marek Dolezaj will likely be the most important player for Syracuse in this game. Dolezaj is an excellent ballhandler for his size and should be able to handle any double teams he faces, either on the perimeter as a screener or after receiving a pass in the 10-foot range where he tends to back in for a short shot attempt. Any time a guard gets it to him after a double team as a pick-and-roll screener, Dolezaj’s ability to drive to either score or pass should create a problem for the Cougars, as having a man advantage with multiple options (drive, dump-off to Guerrier after drawing his man, or kick out to Griffin or Braswell in the corner) is right in his wheelhouse.
Buddy Boeheim has been blistering the nets for a month, but is likely to see heavy doses of Jarreau, the AAC Defensive Player of the Year. It will be difficult for SU to get him open looks via screens, even multiple ones, unless they can force Houston to switch Sasser on to him. If they do, he will be able to shoot over Sasser, as well as back down into the mid-range. While Cougar big men will come out looking for blocks, Boeheim is comfortable in that 12-to-15-foot area around the elbow, especially fading away, which will give him more space to release shots.
While Houston has an excellent perimeter defense, their three-point shooting defense has been a little lax lately. Since the start of February, the Cougars have had eight blowout wins and five close games – their losses to East Carolina and Wichita State and wins by three points or less against Memphis twice and their most recent game against Rutgers. In those five games, Houston’s opponents have shot 42.6 percent (43-for-101) from deep with no single foe shooting under 38 percent in a game. If Syracuse can be successful from deep (Girard is 7-for-16 and from long range in two tournament games and Braswell 7-for-14 in the postseason, in addition to Boeheim’s success), that certainly should help.