Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing
The most wonderful time of the year is finally here. I love the dedication that people like Andy Glockner, Jeff Borzello, Zach Hayes and others put into projecting the bracket, but there’s nothing like seeing the real thing revealed. The age of social media has led to an explosion in the popularity of speculation and predictions (or maybe it just created an additional avenue for such discussion), and that’s exemplified in the non-stop bubble watches, brackets and everything else that comes with March Madness. While it’s fun to look back and see how everyone fared in their predictions and what factors the selection committee ultimately valued, the authenticity of the genuine article is what gets me hooked the most.
Looking at Syracuse’s draw in the East region, there are only a few teams that concern me in the early going. Of course, every school that’s in the tournament is there for a reason, and all the at-large teams have strengths. In the East, the common thread is defense, which isn’t the best of news when you consider how vulnerable the Orange has looked offensively as of late. Florida State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Kansas State and, yes, even Harvard can turn games into slugfests. The Seminoles and Buckeyes stand out the most from that group, but fortunately for Syracuse, they live in the bottom half of the region, which means that only one (or neither) of those teams can come face-to-face with the Orange in a potential regional final. Since the Orange won’t run into anyone from the bottom half of the East bracket unless they get to the Elite Eight, I thought it would be a better use of time to just look at the teams in the top half for now:
- #16 UNC Asheville: A one-seed has never lost to a 16-seed. I’m a big fan of J.P. Primm, but it’s not happening. If we get into discussing the possibility of the school formerly known as UNCA turning the trick, it becomes fair game to debate such scenarios as Michael Bay getting out of the explosions business and venturing into romantic comedies, and I don’t think anyone wants that.
- #8 Kansas State: After the bracket was revealed, there was some early discussion based on the potential Kansas State-Syracuse matchup in the second round (I refuse to refer to the play-in games as “the first round.” Wanna fight about it?). Assuming both teams win their first games, they’ll meet on Saturday in Pittsburgh. The talk was rooted in Kansas State’s rebounding success matched up against the Orange’s failures on the glass. This season, Kansas State has rebounded 40.6% of its misses, a rate good for seventh in the country. A main reason why KSU has been so successful in this area is because they shoot with so much mediocrity (44.3% on the season) that oftentimes, the only way they can put points on the board is by sending everyone to follow shots and hoping someone can get a putback within five feet. The idea is that this could spell trouble for the Orange, who allowed its conference opponents to crash the offensive glass at will, but here’s the thing: In this department, Syracuse essentially transformed the entire Big East into Kansas State, yielding an offensive rebounding rate of 40.2% in conference play, but still went 17-1. It’s realistic to picture the Wildcats owning the Orange on the glass in what could be a very ugly game if it materializes, but as I’ve maintained ever since SU’s rebounding problems became apparent, it’s improbable that those issues on the glass alone will cost Syracuse its season.
- #9 Southern Mississippi: Larry Eustachy returns to the tournament, and with a team that has one of the most nondescript profiles of any at-large team in the bracket. Southern Mississippi’s resume is far from impressive – its best win came against Memphis, and its three victories over major-conference teams (Mississippi, South Florida and Arizona State) don’t turn many heads. The Golden Eagles win by doing a few of the things that Syracuse does well: They don’t the ball over, they get steals on defense and hit the offensive glass, but that’s where the similarities end. Southern Miss shoots poorly and opposing teams don’t seem to have much trouble scoring as long as they can hold onto the ball. Of the four 8-9 matchups, I think this one spells the most trouble for the nine-seed.
- #5 Vanderbilt: The Commodores are scary because of their strong shooting and could ride a wave of momentum all the way to New Orleans if they stay hot. John Jenkins is the best shooter in the tournament, but he’s just one of a few long-range assassins for Vandy – Brad Tinsley and Jeffery Taylor can also put up points in a hurry. If you’re looking for a team that can duplicate the hurt that Cincinnati put on SU in the first half on Friday night, look no further. Vanderbilt’s defense is just good enough that the Orange ought to take it seriously in a potential Sweet Sixteen matchup, but it’s nothing special, and came mostly as a result of going up against some really sloppy offenses in conference play. Outside of Vanderbilt, only Florida and Kentucky made the Big Dance out of the SEC with above-average efficiency on offense. If it comes to pass, this is the kind of game that Syracuse could lose by 15, but if the Commodores don’t hit their shots (see Vandy’s losses to Cleveland State, Indiana State, Louisville, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee), the Orange could cruise just as easily.
- #12 Harvard: For most of the bubble season, Harvard stood a chance of getting in as an at-large in the event that they didn’t win their conference, which would be a rarity for an Ivy League team, but the Crimson won their conference on the last day of the season. Tommy Amaker’s team could get some love in bracket pools as the dreaded 12-seed that can upset a five-seed, and they do a lot of things well, including rebounding on the defensive end, hitting from inside the arc and at the free throw line. I’m not sure they can slow down the Commodores, but as I just discussed, an off night from them can give Harvard a decent shot at pulling the upset (crack analysis, I know). If they can advance, Harvard’s style isn’t as sluggish as Wisconsin’s, but it wouldn’t frustrate them the way it could others if they had to face the Badgers in the next round.
- #4 Wisconsin: The Badgers play the kind of game that the Orange absolutely hates – the patented slow, make-every-possession-count style that Notre Dame and South Florida used to give SU fits earlier in the season. While Wisconsin has etched this reputation and drawn ire from fans across the country for playing such a boring style, it tends to work. However, when it doesn’t, the Badgers get a taste of their own medicine. In their first four conference games, the Badgers’ inability to hit generate offense neutralized the control they exerted on the defensive end. Bo Ryan’s team started 1-3 in the Big Ten this season, scoring less than one point per possession in all three losses, and went 4-8 on the year in conference play when it failed to crack a point per trip. Should the Badgers and Orange do battle, transition offense will be the key for SU.
- #13 Montana: The Grizzlies got into the tournament the only way they could, by winning their conference tourney. The chances of them notching the two wins necessary to meet Syracuse in the Sweet 16 are remote at best, and there’s not much to discuss about their profile, but they have a nice blend of experience with young talent and a seven-footer manning the paint. Montana lost to a bad Pac-12 team by 25 in non-conference play, but scored an upset on the road over a better Long Beach State team back in November. In a slow-paced game like they’re bound to play against Wisconsin, one or two possessions could turn the tide, but an early exit is more likely.