College Basketball Nation: Rick Jackson

Preview: Sunday in Cleveland

March, 20, 2011

CLEVELAND -- The four remaining teams in this East Region pod know how to move on in March. All four have been to a Final Four since 2003, and three of them have national championship trophies encased in glass back home.

Beyond that, we've got the top overall seed (Ohio State) taking on a mid-major power (George Mason). Then it's a Big East grudge match between Syracuse and Marquette in which the lower seed had the upper hand earlier this season.

Let's rock and roll in Cleveland.

No. 8 George Mason (27-6) vs. No. 1 Ohio State (33-2), 5:15 p.m. ET

What to watch: The 3-point arc. Ohio State has been on fire from the outside lately, and the Buckeyes are nearly impossible to beat when William Buford and Jon Diebler are as dialed in as they've been from 3-point range. George Mason was a good shooting team this season (39.4 percent on 3s) but struggled with shot selection against Villanova. The Patriots were able to turn that into a defensive slugfest, but that's probably not going to work against Ohio State. The Buckeyes are holding opponents to 32 percent shooting on 3s in four postseason games.

Who to watch: Jared Sullinger didn't have to do a whole lot in the romp against Texas San-Antonio on Friday, but the Ohio State big man will be a key player against George Mason. The Patriots had a hard time keeping Nova's post players off the glass in the last round, and Sullinger is much more of a load than any of those Wildcats. George Mason will have to clamp down on Buford and Diebler like they did against the Wildcats' Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher in the second half while still accounting for Sullinger inside.

You can bet the Bucks will keep a close eye on George Mason guard Luke Hancock, who had 18 points and the clinching 3-pointer with 20 seconds left in Friday's win against Villanova. Forward Mike Morrison also had a big game on Friday, and the Patriots will need the 6-foot-9 junior to help contain Sullinger.

Why to watch: George Mason is tired of the 2006 comparisons, but that Final Four team beat some of the sport's heavyweights on its way to glory, including a No. 1 seed in UConn. This team will have to take the same path through a powerful Ohio State club that is firing on all cylinders. And the crowd will be heavily on the Buckeyes' side.

What they're saying: "I don't think you want to be an underdog. You probably want to be in Ohio State's position of being the No. 1 overall [seed]. But we're ready to play against a good team. We have confidence in ourselves. We're not worried about being called the underdog." -- George Mason's Hancock.

"Our defense needs to be at its very best on first shots. We've got to limit second shots. But the biggest thing is, based on the way we played yesterday, we've really got to encourage our guys to understand that we're going to have to put the ball in the basket [Sunday]." -- George Mason coach Jim Larranaga

"With us, it's pick your poison. Whatever you want to do, we have a way to counter it." -- Ohio State's Dallas Lauderdale.

"I think they're kind of similar to us. They've got a lot of different guys that can do a lot of different things, from driving the ball, to 3-point shooting, to post-ups. They've got a lot of trigger-pullers within the course of their offense. They do a good job moving the basketball. I think that's the big key -- you have to defend all five guys. And with a one-day prep, you've got to have a great understanding of what all five guys on the floor are capable of doing, because, as I said, they're multi-dimensional players." -- Ohio State coach Thad Matta.

Of note: A win by George Mason would set the school single-season record for victories. The 2006 Final Four team won 27 games. ... Sunday is the winter graduation ceremony at Ohio State, and Diebler, David Lighty and Lauderdale all earned their degrees last week. They'll be a bit too busy to walk in the ceremony, however. ... Watch the pace. Ohio State is 23-0 when scoring at least 75 points. George Mason is 3-5 when opponents score at least 70.

No. 11 Marquette (21-14) vs. No. 3 Syracuse (27-7), approx. 7:40 p.m. ET

What to watch: We went to Cleveland, and a Big East tournament semifinal broke out. These teams might be league rivals, but because the Big East is so big, it's not like they play each other all the time. In fact, they met only once this season, and Marquette won 76-70 back on Jan. 29. The Golden Eagles guards penetrated the Orange's 2-3 zone and got to the rim, shooting 33 free throws and getting the Syracuse post players in foul trouble. They even outrebounded the Orange that night in Milwaukee. Syracuse has a distinct size advantage, but Marquette hopes to neutralize that with quickness.

Who to watch: Syracuse's Rick Jackson had a big night against Indiana State on Friday with 23 points and seven rebounds. Marquette doesn't have many guys who can match his 6-foot-9, 240-pound body. But Golden Eagles forward Jae Crowder had 25 points and seven rebounds in the first matchup of the Orange.

Guards Jimmy Butler and Darius Johnson-Odom will be key for Marquette against the zone. Syracuse guards Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche will have to do a good job handling the Golden Eagles' pressure on the perimeter and slowing down Butler and Johnson-Odom.

Why to watch: Syracuse is a dangerous tournament team because of its length in that zone, which can overwhelm unfamiliar opponents. But Marquette knows the zone and is coming off a terrific performance against Xavier on Friday night. This might be an 11 vs. 3 matchup on paper, but this has all the makings of a hard-fought, Big East-style game.

What they're saying: "You've got to move the ball more than once, and we can't fall into taking quick shots. The key thing is to get it in the middle or behind the zone. We pretty much know where we can get into the gaps and make plays for each other, by us already having seen it." -- Marquette guard Dwight Buycks

"The first time around, our defense wasn't as good as it is now. Our defense is much improved, and it should mess them up a little because we'll be quicker in getting to spots we weren't able to get to in the game we lost to them." -- Syracuse guard Brandon Triche.

"I told one of our assistants, when we were leaving [Madison Square] Garden, after Louisville beat us the [in the Big East tournament], I'm so thankful that we don't have to talk about or prepare or play against a Big East program until next Christmas. And so on Sunday we're doing the Selection Show and they show Xavier first, they're the higher seed, then they show us. Everybody's like rah, rah, rah. And then the next team that pops up is Syracuse." -- Marquette coach Buzz Williams.

Of note: The Jan. 29 game was the last of a four-game losing streak for Syracuse. Orange players said their strong second-half effort in that game helped them get their season back on track by playing with more effort. ... Marquette has lost its second game in the NCAA tournament in each of the last two years and hasn't won two games since the 2003 Final Four run. ... If Marquette hits a big 3, you can be sure to see players making the "3-point goggles" gesture. The Golden Eagles claim to be the first college team to adopt the new trend, which started with the Portland Trail Blazers this season. Marquette grad Wesley Matthews told the Golden Eagles about it, and they have run with it. The goggles made an appearance in Friday's win against Xavier.

CLEVELAND -- Larry Bird is not walking through that door.

Indiana State played with a lot of heart, but Syracuse was the team with a lot of size. And that made a literal huge difference.

A team with four starters 6-foot-5 and under simply can't combat the length in Syracuse's 2-3 zone without burying a bunch of 3s. Indiana State was only 7-of-21 behind the arc. Syracuse used its superior size to pull away late, making the 77-60 final score look worse than how the game actually went most of the night.

With that, the first -- whoops, make that second -- round of the NCAA tournament is officially over. Syracuse avoided another Big East loss and ensured that the two non-Dayton days ended with the top three seeds in each region advancing.

Turning point: Indiana State's best counterpunch came early in the second half, when it closed the gap to 42-38 by driving to the basket and drawing contact. The Orange then turned to their strength on offense -- going down low --- and reeled off a 9-0 run. From there, it was a methodical dismantling, as the lead never again reached single digits.

Key stat: Syracuse shot 52.3 percent and got to the free-throw line 31 times, both indicators of how its size advantage played out.

Star player: Rick Jackson was far too much of a load for the smaller Sycamores to handle. The Orange big man scored a season-high 23 points, including 9-of-11 from the free-throw line, and pulled down seven rebounds.

Miscellany: There were some very questionable whistles in the second half, and calls that went against both teams, but Indiana State seemed to get more rattled by the refs. Several Sycamores spent more time barking at the zebras than they should have. ... Indiana State guard Jake Odum has a lot of flair to his game, reminiscent of Jason "White Chocolate" Williams. He made some sweet wraparound passes in the lane and finished with six assists. He could have had more if his teammates would have finished better around the rim. Credit Syracuse's defense for that. ... Thank goodness for the George Mason-Villanova finish. The subsequent three games in Cleveland were all decided by at least 11 points.

What's next: The Orange are headed for a Big East rematch with Marquette, whom they lost to in the regular season, on Sunday. That wouldn't have happened under the old tournament rules designed to prevent conference mates from meeting this early. But with 11 Big East teams in the Big Dance, it was almost inevitable.

CLEVELAND -- Here's a look at Friday's evening action from the East Regional at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena:

No. 6 seed Xavier (24-7) vs. No. 11 Marquette (20-14), 7:27 ET (truTV)

What to watch: Two basketball-obsessed, big-city, Jesuit schools known for their outstanding guard play and March success. Yes, please. Xavier dominated the Atlantic 10 and has a legitimate superstar in guard Tu Holloway. Marquette was just 7-8 in its final 15 games but had the highest scoring attack in the Big East. If the shots are falling, the Golden Eagles can beat anyone.

Who to watch: Holloway. Marquette players saw some great guards in their league, including UConn's Kemba Walker and Providence's Marshon Brooks, and they say Holloway compares favorably. "Kemba from what I can tell is a little faster, but they both have their scoring mentality," Golden Eagles guard Jimmy Butler said. "They both can shoot it. They both get to the line extremely well, and they both run their team extremely well." Butler is no slouch, either, averaging 16 points and 6.1 rebounds as a dangerous penetrator.

Why to watch: They say guards win in March, which is a debatable cliché. But this matchup should ensure an entertaining game. These are different types of teams, though. Xavier excels on defense and has better big men than it gets credited for, while Marquette usually needs to shoot well from the outside and get to the free throw line to win. Either one could pose a difficult potential opponent for Syracuse in Round Two.

What they're saying: "I think the biggest focus for us would be the ball screen. Focus a lot on that because every possession they're going to set two to three ball screens and try to get into the paint and distribute off of a ball screen, that being a side or flat ball screen, or to the baseline or things like that. So we've got to be ready for many types of ball screens they'll throw at us." -- Butler, on the defensive keys for Marquette.

"New York is full of great point guards every year. And I was fortunate enough to play against and with Kemba. And it's not new to me what he's doing in the college basketball world. I watched him do it firsthand in the backcourt. He never had a game like that against me, I'll say." -- Holloway, on the Kemba Walker comparisons.

Of note: The Golden Eagles have made more free throws than their opponents have attempted this season. "And it's odd in a way, because they don't necessarily have Shaquille O'Neal in the low post that's drawing fouls left and right -- they do it by committee," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "They do it by driving the basketball." ... These two teams met early last season, with Marquette winning by 10. Xavier went on to win two 2010 NCAA tournament games on Marquette's home court, the Bradley Center.

No. 3 seed Syracuse (26-7) vs. No. 14 seed Indiana State (20-13), Approx. 9:57 ET (truTV)

What to watch: If you want to boil this down to a simple storyline, it's Syracuse's size and 2-3 zone against Indiana State's four-guard attack. All but one Sycamores starter stands between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-5, and they spread the floor with their abundance of ballhandlers and shooters. How will that work against the Orange, who shorten the court defensively with guys like Rick Jackson and Kris Joseph? In an effort to simulate Syracuse's length, Indiana State practiced against a six-man zone this week, with the sixth defender standing in the low post holding up a hockey stick. The actual game may be even more difficult. On defense, the Sycamores can switch every screen, but they could get pounded on the glass.

Who to watch: The 6-foot-10 Jackson, who was named Big East defensive player of the year, could dominate the paint. Indiana State will have to use its quickness to neutralize him. The Sycamores define balance; they have seven players averaging between six and 11 points. Point guard Jake Odum will have to get in the lane against that 2-3 zone and kick out to shooters.

Why to watch: Never underestimate the Missouri Valley champion, even in a down year for the league. Just ask Kansas last year. Syracuse's 2010 tournament run came to an end in the Sweet 16 against another mid-major from Indiana: Butler. The Orange made this year's motto "Unfinished Business" in remembrance of that defeat.

What they're saying: "[On] selection Sunday, all we know about Indiana State was Larry Bird went there. And after watching film on them and reading the scouting report, they're a good team just like us. ... And I can tell you one thing, they can all shoot. And when a team all can shoot, that's kind of tough for our zone." -- Syracuse guard Scoop Jardine.

"It's pretty hard to prepare for the type of athleticism that they have. I mean, in the [Missouri] Valley, it's very few teams that have that type of frontcourt lineup. You can't really simulate that type of stuff. It's really just about willpower." -- Indiana State swingman Carl Richard.

Of note: Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim will be coaching in his 71st NCAA tournament game. This will be the first one for Indiana State coach Greg Lansing. ... The Sycamores played in the 2000 and 2001 tournaments, but they will always be remembered as the 1979 runner-up led by Larry Bird. Lansing said the first thing he did when he came to Indiana State was to watch tapes of that '79 team to get a feel for what the heyday was like. "He wished us luck," guard Jake Kelly said of Bird. "He had some nice comments in some of the news coverage. We walk down the halls everywhere and there's pictures and stuff still. That gets us excited that somebody like Larry Bird is following us and wishing us luck."
NEW YORK -- A quick look at Syracuse’s 79-73 win over St. John’s in the Big East quarterfinal.

Overview: The Big East sure knows how to host a party. Before the crowd caught its breath from Kemba Walker's heroics, St. John’s and Syracuse put on terrific game. Whoever had the beleaguered Fab Melo securing the victory for the Orange ought to go play the lottery.

Turning point: Close for much of the game, this one was decided in the waning seconds but in less dramatic fashion. With the shot clock dwindling and the game clock below a minute, Brandon Triche dribbled down the lane and bounced a perfect pass to Melo to give the Cuse a 4-point cushion.

Key player: As dreadful as he was in the first half -- he was 1-of-7 from the floor, 1-of-5 from 3-point range -- Triche was that good in the second. The sophomore scored 13 of his 20 points, shooting 4 of 6. More important, he dished off a perfect bounce pass to Feb Melo with 32 seconds left, securing the win for the Orange.

Key stat: Neither team was Notre Dame-hot from the arc, but the Orange sunk seven 3-pointers and St. John’s landed three. When Triche started knocking them down, they really mattered for the Orange, forcing the Red Storm out on the perimeter more and opening things inside for Rick Jackson (10 points) and Melo (12).

Miscellaneous: The Red Storm played the second half without D.J. Kennedy. The senior injured his knee in the first half and did not return.

What’s next: The Orange advance to a semifinal date with Connecticut. Earlier this year Syracuse ended a four-game losing skid with a win at Hartford against the Huskies. The party ends early for St. John’s but for the first time in nine years, won’t be waiting on an NIT phone call. The Red Storm will only be concerned about seed and opponent.

If you look up "impressive conference road win" in the imaginary multimedia dictionary I just made up in the confines of my own brain, you would be immediately greeted by an replay of Georgetown's 64-56 win over Syracuse.

The Hoyas were never fully in control of the game. Syracuse had plenty of opportunities to take the upper hand, not to mention 27,000 orange-clad maniacs screaming their brains out at every turn. But the Hoyas poked and prodded, found ways into and behind Syracuse's 2-3 zone, stayed focused, got big buckets at key moments, avoided late turnovers when Syracuse had to turn up the pressure, and locked in defensively in the final moments when it mattered most.

[+] EnlargeGeorgetown's Chris Wright
AP Photo/Kevin RivoliChris Wright worked his way into the Syracuse zone and dished out nine assists as Georgetown won its seventh straight game.
No, Big East road wins don't get much more impressive than that. The fact that we just saw this Syracuse team go to Connecticut and get a win makes this win all the more noteworthy. And speaking of noteworthy, there's this: After a 1-4 start in the Big East, the Hoyas have now won seven in a row. That stretch includes a home win over Louisville, a win at Villanova, and now this big-time win in the Carrier Dome, a place they hadn’t won in nearly a decade. Pittsburgh is still the best team in this conference. But at this point, if any team can challenge the Panthers, that team appears to be the Georgetown Hoyas.

Some assorted bullet-point thoughts about the game:

  • When you play a 2-3 zone like Syracuse, and your opponent is one of the most efficient teams in the country both beyond the arc and inside it, you have to have length. The Orange do. They had 11 blocks in this game, a product of some tremendous zone extension and interior presence by Jim Boeheim's team. Rick Jackson had three of those, but the majority of the rejections came from freshmen C.J. Fair, Baye Moussa Keita and Dion Waiters, who combined for eight blocks on the night. Keita, who had five, was especially impressive. This is why Syracuse's zone has been, and can be, so very tough this season. The Orange are just long.
  • That said, there are still plenty of flaws in this zone. Georgetown's guards presented serious matchup problems for Syracuse, especially when Chris Wright worked his way into the middle of the zone and got inside-out looks for Austin Freeman and Jason Clark. Georgetown was also able to get big buckets on baseline action, especially on backcuts late in the game when Syracuse defenders lost their baseline assignments and no one in the middle of the zone was able to help in time. Georgetown's backcuts, which you frequently see in the Princeton offense against man-to-man defense, worked just as well against the zone. And with all those guards on the floor, the Hoyas were able to pass effectively through the zone, much more effectively than anyone might have expected. It takes a lot of guts to try and match up with the Orange with four guards, but it paid dividends for Georgetown on the offensive end.
  • And yes, even with all that length, Georgetown still got plenty of good looks from 3. The Hoyas were shooting 38.5 percent from long range coming into tonight's game; they made 42.9 percent (9-of-21) Wednesday night.
  • [+] EnlargeGeorgetown's Julian Vaughn
    Mark L. Baer/US PRESSWIREJulian Vaughn scored 12 points and pulled down eight rebounds for the Hoyas.
    Still, despite Georgetown's effective ball movement and shooting, it's not like the Hoyas lit it up. No, the Orange’s loss came on the offensive end. Syracuse has struggled on the perimeter throughout the season, and those struggles (4-of-16 from 3) were evident again Wednesday night. In recent seasons, Syracuse has always had at least one (and often multiple) knockdown shooters. Gerry McNamara. Eric Devendorf. Andy Rautins. Wes Johnson. This team doesn't have one. It struggles at the guard position in a variety of ways -- perhaps no player frustrates Syracuse fans more than Scoop Jardine -- but the biggest problem area remains perimeter shooting. Until someone proves capable of knocking down shots, it would probably be wise to cut down on the 3s going forward.
  • It might also be wise to get Fair a greater share of the offensive load. Fair scored 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field and grabbed five rebounds in the process. He was opportunistic and intuitive; he read rebounding angles correctly, found space against Georgetown's interior, and finished his chances when he got them. For as much as Boeheim's freshmen have struggled at times this season, this was a good game for all but Fab Melo.
  • And, not to pile on, but Melo is still a massive disappointment. The highly touted center prospect started but played a mere three minutes. He was 0-for-1 in that span. Melo's simply not there athletically right now. Maybe next year?
  • Speaking of four guards, one of those "guards" was frequently forward Hollis Thompson, who has the size to be a forward but the range to stretch defenses out to the 3-point line. John Thompson III got the perfect type of contribution from Thompson on Wednesday night. The forward had a very efficient 11 points -- 4-of-5 from the field, 3-of-3 from long distance -- and added five rebounds, two assists, two steals and zero turnovers. I'm not sure an off-the-bench role player could have a better, more important game than that. He was huge.
  • Same goes for Julian Vaughn, who went 5-of-8 for 12 points and eight rebounds. Austin Freeman didn't have a great shooting night. Nor did Chris Wright or Jason Clark. That made it all the more crucial for Georgetown's role players to come up with efficient supporting efforts, and Vaughn and Thompson did so.
  • If ever there was a time you thought Georgetown was going to take control of this game, it came when Jackson picked up his fourth foul with 14:40 left in the game. That didn't really happen. Instead, Boeheim got big contributions from the three aforementioned freshmen. Keita grabbed offensive rebounds in bunches, Fair got a pair of buckets and Waiters came up with two steals to keep Syracuse from falling too far behind while Jackson waited on the sidelines. Even in the loss, it was good to see those players step up at a crucial time in the game. But Georgetown did pull away eventually, and the Hoyas get credit for doing what so many teams struggle to do in the Big East: win big games on the road. Tremendous win for Georgetown.

Syracuse snaps out of it at UConn

February, 3, 2011

HARTFORD, Conn. -- The relief in the Syracuse locker room was palpable.

Syracuse had gone two weeks without a win. Two weeks. In the Big East that can seem like an entire season.

“We just found out that it’s not fun and it can happen to somebody good,’’ said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. “You play a bad game and if it’s somebody good then you get beat. You go on the road for three games and one is against a top-five team in the country [actually top-seven] and that’s the one we can beat? It’s very difficult.’’

Syracuse snapped its four-game losing streak and avoided Boeheim’s first-ever five-game slide by beating Connecticut 66-58 Wednesday night at the XL Center. The game wasn’t played all that well, with clanking of the rim a common sound. Syracuse didn’t score for the first few minutes and Connecticut went through its own droughts.

And one-time Big East and national player of the year favorite Kemba Walker looked pedestrian in scoring a season-low eight points, making just 3 of 14 shots, 1-of-6 on 3s. Over his past four games, Walker is 21-of-70 (30 percent) from the field and 4-of-26 (15 percent) from beyond the arc.

Had it not been for freshmen Jeremy Lamb’s 22 points, Syracuse would have won in a rout. And the Orange didn’t exactly tear up the stat sheet, either.

But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Syracuse has been off for two weeks now. The Orange slid from 18-0 and being one of the Big East favorites to a 5-4 record and down to eighth in the conference despite being ranked No. 17.

[+] EnlargeSyracuse's Rick Jackson
AP Photo/Jessica HillRick Jackson scored 13 points and had 13 rebounds as Syracuse snapped a four-game losing streak.
To say the Cuse needed this win after losing at Pitt (without Kris Joseph, who had a head injury), at home to Villanova and Seton Hall (gasp) and then at Marquette, was an understatement. With a road game at South Florida next (although the game is at the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning, which should provide more seats for the snowbird Syracuse fans), the Orange were in danger of sliding into the lower third of the Big East.

Georgetown started off 1-4 in the conference, but has righted itself with wins over St. John’s and at Villanova and now the Hoyas are suddenly 6-4 and tied with Syracuse. The Big East is unforgiving this and any recent year. Lose one or two and the team can go through an avalanche of losses quickly (see Notre Dame and Georgetown recently). Win a few and suddenly a team looks ready for a top-four NCAA tournament seed.

“It’s hard to just keep beating each other up,’’ Boeheim said.

But the Orange, who hadn't won in Connecticut since 1999, were a different club in the second half than in recent games. Syracuse learned how to play with a lead, snuff out a rally and the defense and rebounding was tighter than it has been. Connecticut failed to penetrate the zone effectively, Walker was lost and the inside game of the Huskies was a non-factor unless they were out on the break. Syracuse outscored UConn 40-22 in the paint.

“We just played together as a team and our big guys rebounded,’’ SU guard Brandon Triche said. “Lamb went off a little bit but we were able to lock down Kemba.’’

Triche scored well, making seven shots and finishing with a team-high 16 points. Rick Jackson went back to being a double-double player with 13 and 13 and ended the first half by schooling UConn’s Charles Okwandu that had UConn’s Jim Calhoun irate at his defense. Kris Joseph got into double figures (11 points) but didn’t shoot well at 3-of-11. Scoop Jardine was off as well, making just 2 of 11 shots. Boeheim is getting contributions from freshmen C.J. Fair (six and four) and Dion Waiters (nine points), but nothing out of Fab Melo, who was useless in three minutes. Boeheim didn’t bother to put him back in the game.

So this team is hardly infallible just because it knocked off Connecticut. There are still plenty of issues. But give the Orange credit for gutting out a road win to stop the bleeding.

“Not winning for two weeks was tough,’’ Jackson said. “We just had to stay with it. We’ve got to start better. I can’t pinpoint why we don’t. But getting this win puts us back on track. We’ve got to play hard on defense and when we do run our sets, slow it down, defend and we’ll be fine.’’

Now the focus is making sure South Florida isn’t taken lightly. Syracuse can’t afford to dismiss anyone.

The Orange get Georgetown and West Virginia at home in two of the final remaining home games (the other two are Rutgers and DePaul). But road games to Louisville, Villanova and Georgetown await after the trip to USF. There will be likely more losses. No one in the Big East is immune from a skid, maybe not even Pitt, which is the only team with one loss.

“Pittsburgh barely won at Rutgers and barely won at Providence,’’ Boeheim said. “It’s very difficult out there. Even Pitt will get beat two or three games. Everybody else is going to have a bunch of losses. I don’t see any other way right now.’’

Welcome to Saturday. Or, at least for college hoops fans, Saturday as it should be. There's no baseball, college football, NFL playoffs, or any other popular-but-inferior (kidding!) sport to distract the casual fan from the hoopy goodness you and I have been enjoying for two months now. No, it's just college hoops, and what better way to welcome in the sports tourist than with two huge conference games featuring two ranked league contenders apiece?

Yes, I'm talking Villanova-Syracuse and Ohio State-Illinois, both of which deserve the recap treatment. So, without further ado:

No. 7 Villanova 83, No. 3 Syracuse 72: Well, this was a surprise.

[+] EnlargeJay Wright
AP Photo/Kevin RivoliVillanova coach Jay Wright, left, and Corey Fisher had an easy time picking apart Syracuse's zone.
It's not so much that Villanova's double-digit win was surprising in and of itself, though it was; at this point, any double-digit win at the Carrier Dome must be greeted with some measure of shock. Syracuse entered the game having lost exactly five home games in the past two and a half seasons, the last coming Feb. 14, 2010, when Louisville legitimately shocked Jim Boeheim's team in Syracuse. The Orangemen haven't lost often in recent seasons, and they certainly haven't suffered many of those losses at home.

But more surprising than the win itself was the way Villanova got it. Jay Wright's team didn't just solve Syracuse's famed 2-3 zone. The Wildcats shredded it. The Cuse entered Saturday's top 10 matchup with the stingiest zone in the Big East, one that was allowing a mere .95 points per possession to conference opponents. Villanova scored 1.58 points per trip on offense Saturday afternoon (per That's a crazy number for any game -- Villanova came into Saturday averaging 1.13 points per trip against Big East foes -- let alone one against this rangy, athletic Boeheim zone.

With the exception of some late press-break trouble and a 9-0 Syracuse run in the closing minutes, believe it or not, this Villanova team made Syracuse's elite defense look downright pedestrian. Impressed? Of course. Surprised? That too. A few more assorted thoughts follow:

  • Syracuse's zone might have been shredded, but the Orange didn't play poorly on the offensive end. On a tempo-free basis -- Boeheim's team scored 1.39 ppp Saturday -- they were downright excellent. What was the difference? For one, Villanova simply made more shots. The Wildcats shot 50 percent from the field, including an 11-of-24 mark from beyond the arc. Syracuse, by contrast, was 43 percent from the field overall and made only 10 of its 26 tries from 3.
  • And, as they so often do, free throws changed the game. Villanova got to the foul line at a much higher rate (48.0 percent to Syracuse's 19.4), which is an advantage in and of itself. But when you make 22 of 24 from the foul line, as Nova did, that advantage is exponential and difficult to overcome. (It should be noted that a chunk of those free throw attempts came late in the game when Syracuse needed to foul, but the Wildcats still made them count, and the free throw disparity existed before the game was in last-ditch-comeback mode.)
  • Villanova might have the perfect blueprint for Syracuse's zone. The Wildcats are a balanced team with a host of capable ball handlers and big men who can comfortably operate from the high block. Syracuse loves to extend its zone, trap guards, force long skip passes, and jump in passing lanes. They collapse on interior passes and use their length to challenge post shots. But when you've got guys like Maalik Wayns and Corey Fisher -- who can not only handle those traps but split them, creating odd-man advantages and open shots -- as well as swingmen like Corey Stokes and forwards like Antonio Pena and Mouphtaou Yarou, you can get into the zone, break it down, get layups and open looks, and your life is that much easier.
  • Syracuse's poor perimeter shooting continues to be an issue. The Cuse have been winning in spite of their low (32.6 percent) 3-point field goal percentage for much of the season. That's because Syracuse's defense is tough, its transition game is great, and its athleticism is such that it can get interior looks for Rick Jackson and Kris Joseph almost at will. But when an opposing offense is taking your defense apart, you have to be able to keep pace -- especially when you need to put together a late rally -- and if you can't hit shots from long range, it's hard to do that.
  • What about the Big East? Where does this game put Villanova (which lost at Connecticut on Monday) and Syracuse (which lost at Pittsburgh) in the context of their conference? I think you might downgrade Syracuse just a notch; if this defense doesn't carry Boeheim's team, the Cuse will struggle to keep pace with Pittsburgh in the conference chase. You might also be inclined to upgrade Villanova (and maybe, by extension, UConn), because away wins against elite Big East teams are very difficult to come by.
  • Overall, though, I'm not sure this game moves the needle much. We still have three bona fide contenders for the Big East crown -- Pittsburgh, Villanova and Syracuse -- a potential outside challenge from UConn, and a host of teams (Louisville, Georgetown and the rest) that will win their share of games against the top three before the year is out. Syracuse could use some work on offense, and it did not have the best pair of defensive outings in its past two games, but overall, the conference picture looks pretty constant for now.

No. 1 Ohio State 73, No. 22 Illinois 68: If you pegged this game as the first loss of Ohio State's season, you weren't alone. Thousands of orange-clad Illinois fans -- and, as if you care, yours truly -- were right there with you.

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger
AP Photo/Robin ScholzOhio State's Jared Sullinger drives by llinois' Mike Tisdale on Saturday. Sullinger finished with 27 points.
It certainly had that feel, didn't it? A tough environment. A ranked conference opponent. An apparently vulnerable No. 1 coming off a couple weeks of unimpressive performances, including a four-point escape at Michigan and three-point home wins against Minnesota and Penn State. All the warning signs of a No. 1 upset -- which would have been only the third in Illinois hoops history, a stat I had trouble believing when CBS put it into my brain -- were there.

Instead, we got another impressive performance from Ohio State, another comprehensive game from freshman Jared Sullinger, and another example of why this Buckeyes team is now your undefeated No. 1 in the first place: They're really, really tough to beat.

  • For all of OSU's perimeter weapons, that toughness starts in the post, which means it starts with Sullinger. The freshman put up another classic line Saturday, scoring 27 points and grabbing 16 rebounds in a full 40 minutes on the floor. But perhaps most impressive was Sullinger's free throw shooting. The big man, who is shooting about 73 percent from the line this season, made 13 of his 15 foul attempts Saturday. You probably don't need me to tell you just how lethal that is. Sullinger is so good at getting early position on the block, and so strong once he's there, that you practically have to foul him if you don't want him to get two easy points. But what good is fouling if Sullinger makes his free throws? Big Ten coaches of the world: You are now free to slam your heads repeatedly against your desks. (As if you weren't already.)
  • Sullinger isn't the only player that played 40 minutes for Ohio State on Saturday. That honor also went to Jon Diebler and David Lighty, both of whom played every available minute at Illinois. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta appears to have already settled on a seven-man rotation. Forward Dallas Lauderdale is still a starter, but he's averaging 18.7 minutes per game. Instead, Matta goes early and often to freshman Aaron Craft, whose 31 minutes also cut into the playing time of William Buford, arguably OSU's best all-around perimeter scorer, because Craft is the only thing resembling a point guard that the Buckeyes have.
  • This rotation also features spot duty -- Saturday, that meant 12 minutes -- for highly touted recruit Deshaun Thomas. Thomas is like a secret weapon: He doesn't get on the court all that often, but he's dangerous when he does. Unlike a lot of bench players, Thomas isn't remotely hesitant to shoot the ball; he has the highest usage rate of any Buckeye when he's on the floor, which basically means "he takes a lot of shots." You saw that in the second half Saturday. With the game tied at 50-50 and 9:34 remaining, Thomas hit the first of two quick 3-pointers -- one of which came on a wide-open fast break -- and then scored on a nice post move over Illinois freshman Jereme Richmond with 5:35 remaining. By the time he left the game, Thomas had scored a quick eight points, Ohio State built a six-point lead, and the Buckeyes would never trail again.
  • If you're a particularly positive Illinois fan, you might actually be encouraged by this home loss. Why? Because your opponent -- the ruthlessly efficient No. 1 team in the land -- played relatively well. Your best player, Demetri McCamey, did not. And not only did you lead for much of the second half, you had a chance to win the game in the final seconds. That's not so bad, is it?
  • And boy, did McCamey ever play poorly. It's safe to say that Illinois won't win too many games when McCamey goes 2-for-11 from the field, 1-of-5 from 3, and has nearly as many turnovers (four) as assists (five). It was fitting, then, that Illinois' final chance to tie the game came on a poor decision by McCamey, when the guard passed up a long three to enter the ball to Mike Tisdale in traffic. Tisdale lost the handle, and the game was over. McCamey has been brilliant all season long, so this is nothing to worry about. Everyone has bad games. Unfortunately for Bruce Weber's team, McCamey picked this day -- with a winnable upset of the No. 1 team on the table -- to have his ugliest game of the season. (And yes, as a few commenters below have pointed out, much of the credit for McCamey's bad day goes to Aaron Craft, who played a stellar on-ball defensive game.)
  • Another encouraging sign for Illinois: After facing transfer rumors last week, freshman forward Richmond continues to play well. Richmond scored 18 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the field and added 10 rebounds, three of which came on the offensive end. Richmond is one of the few players on Illinois who can bang down low and get easy buckets in the paint; unlike Illinois' guards and true forwards, he's not really an inside-out player. If Richmond can add that sort of offensive production to a team that is still a bit too reliant on the long two-point jump shot, he could change the face of Illinois' attack. This loss was not without its silver linings.

Hey, wait a second. Did I just spend 1700 words recapping two games? Yes. I did. The day's first fixtures were just that good.

But here's the best part: This day isn't even close to over yet. I hope your couch groove is ready. Mine certainly is.

Fab Melo's Achilles heel no longer heel

December, 17, 2010
Almost two weeks ago, we learned that Syracuse freshman forward Fab Melo wasn't struggling in his first action at Syracuse solely because he was having trouble adapting to the college game, which was the common consensus given his disappointing play thus far. No, Melo was also suffering a pretty painful and nagging injury to his Achilles heel. The injury, Jim Beoheim said, was giving Melo problems getting up and down the court, hence the big man's struggles to date.

Turns out, Melo's Achilles isn't actually injured. Good news, right? Unfortunately, there's bad news to follow: Melo's whole right calf muscle is torn, and he's having trouble participating in training of any sort. From the Syracuse Post-Standard:
"It's been there for like two weeks," he said. "I thought it was my Achilles, but it hurts (in) the whole area." The pain, Melo said, "is not too bad. But when I try to do exercise, it hurts really bad."

"We're going to try to rest him," SU coach Jim Boeheim said. "He's going to shoot around tomorrow and practice Friday. And if he feels good, he'll play Saturday. If he doesn't, he won't."

The good news for Boeheim is that his season doesn't exactly hinge on the play of Fab Melo. That's because Rick Jackson, Kris Joseph, and Baye Moussa Keita have been awfully good in Boeheim's frontcourt, especially Jackson, who has been a dominant interior scorer and rebounder to this point in the season. Heck, Melo can take a few weeks off if he needs them. The big Brazilian has plenty of promise, and he could be a boost once he gets fully healthy, but for now, Syracuse's forwards are just doing just fine, thanks.

Balanced Cuse yet another Big East threat

December, 8, 2010

NEW YORK -- Comparing conferences has about as much meaning as rankings.

Both are good fodder for fun debate, but in college basketball, the strength of a conference should be measured by its NCAA-tournament depth, high seeds and wins in the spring.

Still, ignoring the obvious Big East domination of late would be naïve.

Now add Syracuse to the list of teams from the Big East that has risen to the challenge of knocking off an elite team. Pitt, Georgetown, Connecticut and Notre Dame have already left marks on opponents. Villanova and West Virginia may still have a day.

[+] EnlargeSyracuse's Rick Jackson
Tony Spinelli/ESPN.comSyracuse's Rick Jackson had 17 points and 16 rebounds against Michigan State.
On this Tuesday night in New York, the Orange were the team of record. Syracuse manhandled eighth-ranked Michigan State 72-58 in the headline game of the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.

This game wasn't close. Syracuse dominated points in the paint (42-24) as Rick Jackson was superb inside with 17 points and 16 boards. Scoop Jardine took care of the perimeter advantage with a game-high 19 points. Syracuse's zone was active and disruptive and the Spartans looked lost offensively.

And what smarted Michigan State coach Tom Izzo more than anything, what made him feel embarrassed and disappointed, was how much Syracuse dominated the hustle and hard-work plays.

"We're a dangerous team when we put it together like we did," Jardine said. "We can beat anybody."

Syracuse was hardly a finished work prior to Tuesday. Jackson was consistent, but no one else was throughout the first eight games. The Orange scratched and clawed their way toward an undefeated start, but beat William & Mary by three, Michigan by three and Georgia Tech by four.

"We won here by more than we have at home," said Boeheim. "We should have lost to NC State, Detroit and Canisius. We're the same. We played the same all year. We just can't shoot and we've got to make shots. We finally did with Dion [Waiters making a 3-pointer] to get us going to get some separation."

What's different about this team than Boeheim's previous editions is the balance. There is no star, be it an NBA lottery pick or a sensational college player like Carmelo Anthony, Gerry McNamara or Wesley Johnson.

Kris Joseph may become one, but he's not yet. Jackson is a stud inside, but has had to worked hard to become a consistent rebounder and offensive put-back scorer. The freshmen -- Waiter, Fab Melo or C.J. Fair -- aren't close to being elite yet.

Jardine is scoring well and so is Brandon Triche, but they can have their off nights and it won't hurt this squad as long as there is someone else comparable. And on this team there are other options.

"We're a collection," Boeheim said. "We're playing eight guys. They're all pretty good players."

Jackson said he's feeling more comfortable scoring in the flow of the game, but he has latched on to his role as a rebounder. One thing that was noticeable Tuesday was how much he was communicating with fellow big men along the back line of the zone. That chatter led to a defense that disrupted the Michigan State offense all night long.

"I think we have a real active zone," said Jackson, the lone senior on this team. "We've got guys bouncing around and getting around screens. Sometimes our zone hasn't been as active and teams try to take 24 seconds off the clock. [Against MSU] we did a good job."

Jackson said he lost 25 pounds in the offseason and is down to 239. He does look lean and is much more effective. He's now the mentor to players like Melo and someone the rest of the team can count on nightly.

Whether or not that means the Orange can win the Big East is still to be determined. They don't have another marquee nonconference game and the Big East will start soft with three of the first four games against Providence, at Seton Hall and at St. John's with a home game against Notre Dame wedged in there. But it will change quickly with games at Pitt, home against Villanova, at Marquette and at Connecticut going into late January and into early February.

"This league is very, well, I'm very scared," Boeheim said. "I'd rather keep playing these teams. There are 10 or 11 teams in the Big East that are very scary. The whole country slid, but we haven't slid as much. Players leaving early means that it won't be like it was before. There's a lot of balance and the top teams aren't that much better."

But one thing is certain: If Syracuse plays like it did Tuesday in New York, the Orange will once again be in the mix for a high seed, a Big East title and a deep March run.

Rapid Reaction: Syracuse 72, MSU 58

December, 8, 2010
Our own Andy Katz will have a full recap later tonight, but in the meantime here are some quick thoughts on Syracuse’s 72-58 win over Michigan State.
  • Syracuse’s famed zone is as good as ever. This is no surprise -- you can’t spell “Syracuse” without “2-3 zone.” (OK, so you can, but just go with it.) And this zone isn’t a sit-back-and-force-bad-shots type of 2-3, though it does have that effect. The Orange zone extends, pressures shooters, forces turnovers and slides seamlessly from one end of the court to the other. Michigan State was able to find gaps here and there, but more often than not (and especially in the first half), the Spartans were stuck tossing the ball around on the perimeter, trying and failing to get Draymond Green a touch at the top of the key. And when Michigan State did break down the zone, Syracuse’s lengthy interior defenders were there to erase the opportunity. A thoroughly impressive defensive effort.
  • In the meantime, Michigan State becomes the best -- and most maddening -- 6-3 team in the country. If this was any other team, you’d ask for someone to kindly show you where the beef is. (If only there were a catchier way of asking that question.) But MSU’s losses have come against very good teams. All of them have come in either neutral or hostile environments. And the Spartans have flashed plenty of Final Four potential in each. The problem, as always: turnovers. MSU gave the ball away 16 times on Tuesday night, which is in character, given that Michigan State entered the game as one of the worst teams in the country in turnover percentage. At some point, this group is going to have to learn how to take care of the ball. If it doesn't, we’ll still be here in February talking about how good the Spartans look, and how they’ll figure it out come March, and how much better they'd be if they could just keep control of the ball. Cross file that one under “Tom Izzo” and “nightmare scenario.” In other words: The time to stop turning the ball over is now.
  • Speaking of which, did you see Izzo’s face on the bench as the final seconds ticked away? Cross file that one under “locker room speeches” and “glad I won’t be there.”
  • Syracuse is not a 3-point shooting team, and knows it. The Orange attempted a mere 11 3s and made only two of them. This team is at its best when attacking the rim, and they were at their best Tuesday night. Rick Jackson opened the game with a dunk-fest, and Syracuse was able to get to the rim in multiple hyphenated ways -- post-ups, curl-screens, dribble-drives, dump-offs, all of it. The Cuse will have to make some shots eventually -- there are good shooters on this team -- but until that day, they seem to have the whole “get easy looks” thing down pat.
  • Most impressive for Syracuse? Jackson, of course: 17 points, 16 rebounds, six of which came on the offensive end. That’s an obvious one. But Scoop Jardine, who got his 19 points on an efficient 7-of-9 shooting, wasn’t too bad either.
  • Most impressive for Michigan State? Durrell Summers scored 18 points and grabbed six rebounds, though he was characteristically off-and-on from beyond the arc. And though he only scored 6 points, Draymond Green continued his impressive streak of versatile play with an 11-rebound, five-assist, three-steal night.
  • Oh, and Kalin Lucas still doesn’t look 100 percent. Whether the Achilles is still sore, or Lucas is still just rusty from the lost offseason, he’s clearly missing his touch and, like the rest of his team, is struggling to hold onto the ball (Lucas had six turnovers Tuesday).
  • I think we’re officially past the physical feeling-out point of the year for both players and referees. This game was physical, but never overly so. The refs let both teams play, but never let the game turn into a slugfest. There were questionable calls here and there -- aren’t there always? -- but in general, it was great to see an officiating crew let the game unfold with a good sense of where the line eventually had to be drawn.
  • At this point in his career, the best description for Korie Lucious is “shotmaker.” Lucious is still a little too turnover-prone to be truly efficient, but his ability to break down defenders and hit shots from everywhere -- whether a set shot from behind the arc or slightly fading from 15 feet -- has kept the Spartans in more than one game this season.
  • Did we mention that Michigan State needs to stop turning the ball over? Have we talked about this enough already? Because, yeah, wow. Michigan State really needs to stop turning the ball over. Basketball is a mysterious fig, but sometimes it’s pretty simple. This is one of those times.

Spartans, Orange relying on youth

December, 7, 2010

Of the four teams at the Jimmy V Classic, which begins tonight at Madison Square Garden, the team that will rely most on its freshmen to get into the NCAA tournament is Memphis. Kansas has the most anticipated freshman, but Josh Selby won’t be eligible to play until Dec. 18.

Syracuse and Michigan State have other parts, but they’ll need production from their freshmen if they’re to compete for league championships, and perhaps nationally.

The headline names for the Spartans and Orange are familiar: for MSU, it’s Kalin Lucas and for Syracuse, it’s Kris Joseph. The health of Lucas’ Achilles tendon remains a hot topic. MSU coach Tom Izzo said he made a mistake in managing Lucas’ minutes in consecutive games in Maui and then at Duke and said he needs “to be careful the next few weeks,” with Lucas. However, the key to elevating the Spartans into national contenders may lie with freshmen Keith Appling and Adreian Payne.

Appling has been sporadic so far, averaging 16.5 minutes and 6.3 points. The Spartans (6-2) need another guard to produce to take the burden off of Lucas. Appling did so in a win over Bowling Green (11 points, three assists and one turnover); he didn’t in a loss to Duke (nothing to show for six minutes of action but two fouls).

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo and Kalin Lucas
AP Photo/Al GoldisKalin Lucas is still working his way back to full speed for Tom Izzo.
“He had a very good game Saturday,’’ Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “But he was in foul trouble against Duke. He’s a tough kid who can defend. And I do think you’ll see a major step with him in the next couple of weeks.’’

Appling can be the third option at guard alongside Lucas and Korie Lucious with Durrell Summers in his own grouping as a scoring wing. For his part, Payne can be a much-needed scoring and rebounding big to complement Draymond Green, Garrick Sherman, Delvon Roe and Derrick Nix.

So far Payne has averaged 10.5 minutes and 3.4 points and 4.1 rebounds. He was limited to single-digit minutes in all three games in Maui.

“Payne is one of the most talented inside guys,’’ Izzo said. “But the four-and-a-half months he missed this summer with a shoulder separation prevented him from doing the one thing he needed to do -- get stronger. Against UConn, he was like a pinball in there and got bumped around. He showed improvement against Bowling Green [15 minutes, six rebounds and four points].

“For us to be a great team, it’s going to come down to still getting Lucas back to normal and those two guys [Appling and Payne] improving,’’ Izzo said.

Syracuse (8-0) is looking at similar issues but needs freshmen Dion Waiters, C.J. Fair and centers Baye Moussa Keita and Fab Melo even more so than Izzo may need Appling and Payne.

The Orange have veterans in Joseph, big man Rick Jackson and guard tandem of Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche. But the development of the freshmen will determine how far this team goes in March.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim and Fab Melo
Marc Squire/Getty ImagesJim Boeheim is counting on contributions from young players like Fab Melo.
Waiters (6.6 ppg) and Fair (5 ppg) are averaging just over 13 minutes a game, while Keita is averaging 20.6 minutes and six rebounds a game. Melo is down to 13.5 minutes and 2.6 points and 2.6 rebounds a game.

“The freshmen are making progress,’’ Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “Fab has struggled with a sore Achilles for a number of weeks now. It’s held up his progress getting him up and down the court. He starts out well and then his foot is bothering him. That’s what has held him back.’’

Boeheim points to the combined production of Keita and Melo as a positive -- together they are averaging more than eight rebounds a game.

“They’re doing a good job, but we need them to get better, but it is a yearlong process; it’s not going to happen in two weeks,’’ Boeheim said. “Hopefully they’ll all keep getting better. Dion has had some good moments and C.J. has been doing a good job. We’ve got four freshmen among our top eight guys. That’s the youngest we’ve been in a number of years. We have one senior [Jackson], so we’re where we should be at this stage in the season where we’ve scrapped out a couple of wins.’’

The Orange are inexperienced and that won’t change against Michigan State on Tuesday night.

“You find yourself doing a lot more things in practice than we have,’’ Boeheim said. “Last year we were on cruise control with a one hour-and-fifteen minute or one hour-and-thirty minute practice. We did the work, did the running and didn’t correct a lot. We just won games and kept everyone in rhythm. This year we’re scratching for everything we can get.

“We’re not that far away from being 5-3. We were behind in four of our eight games and made some good plays late. We can play a lot better.’’

And if the freshmen start producing, that will change. For Michigan State, the freshmen will be a welcome addition to elevate the Spartans rather than a necessary piece to its conference title hopes.

Syracuse vs. Le Moyne: The rematch

November, 9, 2010
Remember when Syracuse lost to Le Moyne? Of course you do. Not only have we been mentioning it almost daily during this season's rash of surprising exhibition upsets, but it was a pretty big deal last season, too.

Naturally, the result didn't matter on the court: Syracuse went on to win 30 games and notch a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But off the court, the story of the tiny Le Moyne Dolphins finally getting one over on their big, bad city rival resonated with college basketball fans everywhere. College basketball is all about upsets, and this was a really, really big upset. Who cares if it didn't "matter?" It mattered to Le Moyne.

In a way, it also mattered to Syracuse, because the Orange had to answer way too many questions about an inconsequential game, and you can imagine how annoying that would get. For example, here's Syracuse forward Rick Jackson, as told to the Syracuse Post-Standard:
“Of course you’re embarrassed to lose to a D-II school,” said SU forward Rick Jackson. “You turn on SportsCenter, everywhere you see -- ‘Syracuse loses to Le Moyne.’ It hurt.”

“It was really blown out of proportion, made a big deal of,” Joseph said.

Which leads us to tonight, when, like so many great rematches before it, Syracuse-Le Moyne II will shake the sports world to its very core. The rumble in the, um, Carrier Dome! (We might need a catchier nickname, guys.) I have a feeling Jim Boeheim's team will play a little bit harder than the average exhibition would require. Revenge is a dish best served in 30-point blowouts, and Syracuse is looking for a little revenge.

Summer Buzz: Syracuse Orange

August, 2, 2010
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subjects? Butler and Syracuse. (For today's take on Butler, click here.) Up next? Georgetown.

2009-10's Syracuse season opened with a whimper. It ended with a Sweet Sixteen loss to Butler. But between those low lights -- an exhibition loss to the mighty LeMoyne Dolphins and an offensively dormant upset at the hands of an elite Butler defense -- the Orange were as consistently good as any team in the country.

A few months removed from that brilliant effort, it's easy to forget that most people didn't project Syracuse as a top 25 team, let alone a national title contender. The departures of Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris made most onlookers assume the Cuse would go through the typical big-program standby year while coach Jim Boeheim's talented recruits figured out the Big East for themselves.

Of course, that's because we didn't know about Wes Johnson, the Iowa State transfer whom Boeheim oh-so-accurately predicted as a top 10 draft pick back when the rest of us were bleating, "Wes who?" Boeheim was right. Johnson was that good. And combined with the strong interior play of Arinze Onauku and Kris Joseph, the deadly accurate shooting of Andy Rautins, and the always-tricky 2-3 zone, Syracuse was very much a member of the elite.

With Johnson, Rautins, and Onauku gone, Syracuse loses its second Big Three in two years. But this time, most college hoops fans shouldn't be so eager to write the Orange off.

Why? Because the 2010-11 Orange could do the same thing the 2009-10 Orange did: Absorb talented, veteran losses, incorporate newcomers seamlessly, and enjoy yet another year at the top of the college hoops dogpile.

Much of that will come down to the play of Boeheim's much-touted newcomers. Seven-foot, 274-pound Brazilian Fabricio Melo -- heretofore and forever known as "Fab," which is about as awesome a nickname as you can ask for -- is the No. 1 center in the class of 2010. At this point in his development, Melo specializes in low-post scoring, meaning he could be the perfect replacement for the efficient Onauku.

Whether Syracuse can weather the loss of Johnson on the defensive end -- who led the Cuse in defensive rebounding rate last season and posted a 5.7 percent block percentage, second only on the team to bench forward Rick Jackson -- will hinge on whether Melo can shorten his learning curve considerably and use his size to dominate the middle of Syracuse's zone in year one.

Melo has been getting much of the Syracuse-related recruiting attention, but there's also Dion Waiters, the No. 2 shooting guard in the incoming class. According to ESPNU's scouts, Waiters is already an elite offensive threat who attacks the rim with impressive explosion and body control.

There are a few key stats the Orange must approximate if they want to have a repeat of last year's season. The biggest is shooting: With a team effective field goal percentage of 57.6, Syracuse was the second-best shooting team in the country in 2009-10. It wasn't hard to see why: Johnson and Rautins were hyper-efficient shooters from the perimeter, while Onauku and Kris Joseph pounded the ball inside and scored from under the hoop. (I'd love to see a highlight reel of baskets from four feet or less by Syracuse last year. Sometimes, watching the Cuse play felt like watching that reel.) That dynamic attack made Syracuse the eighth-most efficient offense in the country.

Melo should help where the latter is concerned. For the former, Syracuse's ability to stay versatile from the wing -- and to make a few buckets from beyond the arc -- will have to come by committee. Brandon Triche and Mookie Jones both shot a higher FG percentage than Johnson last season; Jones actually shot better than every other Orangeman save Onuaku. (Yes, including Rautins.) Triche and fellow backcourt mate Scoop Jardine appear poised to start together, with Jardine at the point and Triche in the Rautins-esque shooting combo role. If Waiters can provide shooting of his own, Syracuse should be able to keep their jump-shooting game in the same ballpark as last season's impressive effort.

There's no getting around the fact that Syracuse lost much of its attack this spring. Johnson was an NBA-ready talent with versatility to spare. Rautins, though prone to turnovers, was a hot shooter who kept the Syracuse offense humming. Onuaku made the most of his touches in the lane. All three did different things; all three contributed in big ways to the team's success.

But there's a sneaky little fact about Syracuse's efficiency profile: Three of the team's top four possession contributors return in 2010. Those three are Jardine, Triche, and Jones. All three will feature prominently in the new look Cuse, and all three have skill sets that can combine to make up what Syracuse lost in the backcourt departures of Rautins and Johnson.

Factor in a pair of top-level recruits, including one that should help shore up the loss of Onuaku in the post, and it would almost be surprising if Syracuse didn't succeed in the coming season. They may not be as good as last year's team. We might not be fitting Syracuse for a No. 1 seed come March. But none of Syracuse's personnel losses are devastating or irreplaceable, especially not on a team this deep and talented.

The Big Three is gone -- again -- but Syracuse can adapt. Boeheim's program is humming. Warning to the college hoops minds of the world: Don't leave Syracuse out of your top 25 this time.
SALT LAKE CITY --The West Regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament tip off at EnergySolutions Arena on Thursday night.

No. 1-seeded Syracuse meets No. 5-seeded Butler in the first game at approximately 7:07 p.m. ET. No. 2-seeded Kansas State plays No. 6-seeded Xavier in the nightcap.

Here are a few nuggets of information from Wednesday's press conferences:

Onuaku still sidelined

Syracuse senior forward Arinze Onuaku won't play in a third straight NCAA tournament game because of a right leg injury. Syracuse didn't miss him in victories over Vermont and Gonzaga in Buffalo last weekend, but Orange coach Jim Boeheim says his team might need Onuaku as the competition gets tougher.

Big East Sixth Man of the Year Kris Joseph has been forced to start in Onuaku's absence, leaving the Orange without a forward on the bench. Onuaku's injury also requires junior Rick Jackson to play exclusively at center.

"The biggest difference for us is we don't have a forward substitute," Boeheim said. "That's what really hurts us. Our depth is fine. Obviously we have three guards who can play the one or two. We have tremendous depth at guard with those three guys. Arinze, one of his biggest values, he's our best scorer inside, which we miss. It allows Ricky to play forward for 20 minutes. We don't have that. That's the one thing we're going to have to try to struggle to overcome as we go along."

Zoned out

Butler will have to beat Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history.The Bulldogs take more than 40 percent of their shots from beyond the 3-point line and it's going to have to knock them down to upset the Orange. Butler's biggest challenge will be shooting over Syracuse's taller perimeter players.

The Orange don't start a player under 6-foot-2 and four of their starters are 6-4 or taller.

"I think an ideal scenario is to try to attack inside out," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "It's a lot easier said than done. Are you going to have to make shots over the top of that zone? Yeah, you have to. There's no doubt about that. At the same time I think you certainly want to attack and get it into the paint in different ways, whether it be by the bounce, the pass, the post, flashes, those kind of things."

Bad blood brewing?

Xavier and Kansas State have only played each other six times, but there still seems to be some bad blood between the teams heading into tonight's East Regional semifinal.

The Wildcats beat up the Musketeers 71-56 on Dec. 8 in Manhattan, Kan.

Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen said he still hasn't forgotten the 103-77 beating the Wildcats took from Xavier during his freshman season in 2007-08.

"You don't forget things like that," Pullen said. "They just really did what they wanted. They laughed on the court, played around. You just don't forget things like that. So when you get the opportunity to play against a team like that you always remember that, no matter if it's one person from that team or 10 people from that same team. There's some bad blood, but it's nothing serious, nothing to start a fight about."

Hitting the boards

If the Musketeers are going to fare better in the rematch, they'll have to do a better job on the glass. Kansas State had a 28-8 rebounding advantage in the first half of the Dec. 8 game, including an 11-1 edge in offensive rebounds. Guard Jordan Crawford will also be looking to bounce back from one of his worst efforts of the season, finishing with 16 points on 5-for-13 shooting in the first game.

"They're a very physical team," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "It was our first true road test of the season. We certainly didn't pass it. But I thought it made our kids and our team a lot stronger and a lot better because of it. I think we've gotten better on both ends of the basketball since that time.

"We certainly improved offensively. I think we've been a team that has had that inside-outside balance that you need. I think defensively we've continued to progress from day one. We didn't play necessarily a bad game defensively against Kansas State, we just had no answer for them on the backboard against Kansas State."

Final: Syracuse 87, Gonzaga 65

March, 21, 2010
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Some quick observations from a second-round game that looked a heckuva lot more like a 1-16 first-round game (somewhere Vermont is smiling for giving Syracuse a tougher game than the Zags).
  • Kentucky's dismantling of Wake Forest was impressive, but in my book, this was even more impressive. Playing with essentially five guys and a little bit of DaShonte Riley, Syracuse completely humiliated Gonzaga. Smoked 'em offensively, schooled 'em defensively. If anyone thought the injury to Arinze Onuaku took the Cuse out of the national championship derby, I'm guessing they're rethinking that now.
  • The fact that Wes Johnson is back to his old self is far more significant than the status of Onuaku's leg. Not to discredit the importance of Onuaku, but Johnson at his best means a lot more in the grand scheme of things for the Orange. And the way he played today -- 31 points on 11 of 16 shooting, 4 of 6 from the arc and 14 rebounds in 36 minutes -- should send out a flare to everyone else left in the bracket.
  • The Orange only go six deep without Onuaku but five of those six can dominate the game at any time. They practically took turns against Gonzaga -- Johnson to start, Brandon Triche midway through the first half, Andy Rautins to begin the second. Sprinkle in a little Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson and you realize just why this team is so hard to beat.
  • I'll be curious to see if Onuaku can play in Salt Lake City. That regional begins on Thursday and Onuaku hasn't practiced since injuring his leg against Georgetown more than a week ago. Do the Orange absolutely need him? Apparently not. Would it be good to have him when you push into the second weekend? Absolutely.
  • As for Gonzaga? Well the band was fun. Seriously, this is a team that can be fun to watch offensively but also is a team that was absolutely run out of the gym by Duke. Shouldn't be terribly surprising this happened. The Zags don't play enough defense which means when they can't shoot -- and they couldn't have scored with a ladder to the hoop against Syracuse -- they can't win.