If you don't at least know that Jim Boeheim is kind of a big deal in not just Syracuse sports history, but basketball history period, then you should probably stop reading right now. He is one of only three coaches in NCAA history to win 800+ games at the same school, and might be the first to make it 900. His teams rely on a relentless 2-3 zone defense, creating turnovers for easy baskets in transition, and one or two guys who are absolutely lethal from distance to keep the defense honest.
The Orange don't necessarily have that this season, and it showed as they ended their season by losing five of their last seven. They had been a top team and competing with Wichita State to be the last undefeated team until the end, but they were doing so by playing with fire. They went 4-5 in their last nine games, and only their ACC tournament win over Florida State was by more than two points.
Tyler Ennis has been ridiculous as a freshman, and he remains a player to watch. The problem is that Trevor Cooney has been the one player all season who is a legitimate deep threat, in terms of both accuracy and volume. He isn't the only player shooting around 37% from three, but he has taken almost half of the team's three-point attempts. One deep threat is better than none, but the late season collapse coincided with Cooney shooting a horrid 21% from distance in the last seven games.
Western Michigan has made a living on making adjustments this season, so they at least avoid making the same mistakes twice. Not only that, but seniors Shayne Whittington and David Brown are both the kind of player who are excellent and just happen to be playing for a mid-major, not just putting up great numbers against crap competition. Whittington has gotten even better late in the season, averaging 18.5 ppg and 10.1 rpg over his last 10 games. The Broncos don't shoot the three particularly well, but they are great at stopping it, which has helped them succeed, especially in winning 14 of their last 16.
They have faced a zone at least similar to Syracuse's before and succeeded (Eastern Michigan), but Boeheim has kind of been doing this for a long time, half-court antics or no. They would likely need to shoot a little better than they usually do (and hope that Syracuse continues to shoot a little worse) but the chance is there.
Why Western Michigan Will Win
Because Syracuse has flaws that they can exploit. The Orange don't have a lot of depth (they run essentially a seven-man rotation) so if Whittington and Brown can create some foul trouble, things may get dicey, especially since the Broncos (particularly Whittington) are great at getting to the line and at least pretty good at converting once they get there. I mean, you did see that Syracuse lost to both Boston College and Georgia Tech down the stretch, two teams that flat-out are not as good as WMU.
Why Syracuse Will Win
Because they will likely dominate the turnover battle. They are top 15 in the country at both creating turnovers and not giving it up themselves, while there are only 27 teams in all of Division I who turn the ball over less frequently than Western Michigan does. They are unlikely to run the Broncos out of the gym, but that certainly won't stop them from doing just enough to win, as they have several times this season.
Who Will Win
This is a tricky one; the Broncos have just enough weapons to gun down a top seed, not just make them sweat out the result. Unfortunately, they're also really good at shooting themselves in the foot. They were able to limit both those mistakes and their impact against the likes of the Mid-American Conference, but one of the best teams in the ACC is a different story. Still, I think this will be one more "holy crap that was close" game for Syracuse fans as they watch the Orange pull of a hotly contested, 68-65 victory.
-- ht to BrownandGold from HustleBelt for the assist on this one
Date: Thursday, March 20, 2014
Location: Buffalo, NY