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Championship-Caliber Defense Does The Trick

The milestones and high honors continued to roll in with SU’s 58-49 win over Louisville on Senior Night over the weekend. As you probably know by now, Syracuse finished the regular season with 30 wins for the first time in its history, set a Big East mark by winning the conference by three games (more room to spare than Fab Melo’s uniform last season) and matched the 1999 UConn Huskies with 17 conference wins in a season. In addition, Kris Joseph was named to the All-Big East First Team and Dion Waiters took home the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award. It’s been a remarkable season to say the least and I can’t wait to see what the postseason holds.

The Orange won Saturday with another air-tight performance by its defense, which is stifled Louisville to a point of folly. For a stretch of 11 minutes and 42 seconds, the Cardinals failed to hit a shot from the floor, and only mustered eight points over a 15:07 stretch of the game. If you remember, the start of the second half was highlighted by Brandon Triche magically reappearing with eight points on his own in about a minute and a half of action. I’ll get back to Triche in a moment, but there’s a little more to discuss in the way of team defense and how Syracuse compares with some of its potential brethren on the one-lines.

Saturday, Syracuse put the clamps on Louisville to the tune of just .774 points per possession allowed. Amazing as that performance was, there were two better defensive games by the team in Big East play – one against Seton Hall (.688) and the other coming against Providence (.773). There’s admittedly a little bit of cherry-picking there because the Friars will almost certainly see their season draw to a close this week while the Friars are still a fringe team when it comes to  cracking the field of 68, but the Orange have been doing this kind of thing quite consistently.

In the regular season, SU held conference opponents to .9 points or fewer per possession, the mark of an excellent defense, nine different times. Here’s how that number stacks up with the other candidates for one-seeds in the NCAA Tournament:

Michigan State – 10
Kansas – 9
Ohio State – 8
North Carolina – 8
Kentucky – 7*
Duke – 0

*(The Wildcats are the only team in this group that played a 16-game conference schedule instead of the 18-game slate that the Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC use.)

Duke may have taken itself out of the running for a one-seed by getting blown out at home by North Carolina, but it’s not impossible to picture them exacting revenge in the ACC Tournament final, should they meet again, and hop back up to the one-line. Michigan State may also be vulnerable after losing its regular season finale to the Buckeyes and the ensuing news that one of Michigan State’s starters, Branden Dawson, tore an ACL and is out for the season. While each of the teams listed above has flaws, some combination from these six teams figure to join the Orange as schools that will be putting their dark jerseys away for awhile next week. In any case, this little exercise is just another indicator that Syracuse is indeed a championship-caliber team (you know, just in case you needed it).

While the SU D has been stifling all season long, Brandon Triche has come and gone. Triche entered Saturday’s game mired in a 13-44 slump from the floor and a frosty 2-16 from three-point land. He broke out of the funk with his third 18-point game of the season, and it very well could be players like him and James Southerland who end up being the difference in Bracketville. Since mid-February, Syracuse has largely won on the strength of its defense rather than with hot shooting nights as opponents (Notre Dame notwithstanding) have tried unsuccessfully to beat the Orange in slow-down rockfights, and if those two can put up solid numbers at Madison Square Garden with the defense being its usual self, it would go a long ways towards building confidence and keeping everyone fresh.

Many writers posit that if and when Syracuse loses in the NCAA Tournament, it will be in a grind-it-out fashion, and I agree, based on SU’s track record this season. Ten of the team’s 18 conference games were decided by less than ten points, and of those ten, only three had the Orange scoring more than 70 points. The recipe for beating this team may be out, but executing the plan for an entire 40 minutes is a completely different trick, and one that only Mike Brey’s Fighting Irish have been able to pull off, needing home court advantage and a Melo-less Orange team to do so.

The team’s next game may not be until Thursday, but you can bet that I’ll be anxiously awaiting tip-off in the meantime.

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