Final Four Preview: Syracuse

It has been quite a whirlwind season for the Syracuse Orange. Legendary coach Jim Boeheim was suspended for nine game due to academic sanctions, and the team struggled mightily without him. Upon his return, they started to turn the corner, and looked like a Tournament team. That was before ending the season losing five of six games, putting their tourney hopes in serious doubt.

In one of a few shockers, Syracuse safely earned a 10-seed in the Big Dance. Many didn’t think Syracuse belonged in the field, and they have clearly been playing with a chip on their shoulder, as they’ve won four games en route to this year’s Final Four. The Orange are the first 10-seed to reach the Final Four, and just the 4th double digit seed to get this far. They’ll match-up with conference foe North Carolina in the National Semis, and they have a legitimate chance to win this whole thing. The following is a look at how Syracuse got here, and why they have a chance to cut down the nets in a few days.

First Round
Def. 7-seed Dayton 70-51
Syracuse made a little bit of a statement in the First Round, quite easily dispatching the 7-seeded Dayton Flyers, winning by 19. Dayton shot just 6-22 from three-point range and 9-19 from the free throw line, helping lead to their downfall. Freshman Malachi Richardson led the way for Syracuse with 21 points, and junior Tyler Roberson notched a double-double with 10 points and 18 rebounds.

Second Round
Def. 15-seed Middle Tennessee 75-50
A fairly large number of people expected Syracuse to defeat Dayton, but just about everyone expected their Second Round opponent to be Michigan State. When the Spartans were upset by Middle Tennessee, Syracuse knew they had a fantastic opportunity to advance to the second weekend of the Tournament, which they did. Senior Michael Gbinije was the catalyst for the Orange, scoring 23 points to lead the way.

Sweet 16
Def. 11-seed Gonzaga 63-60
Syracuse would again benefit from a big upset, meeting 11-seed Gonzaga in the Regional Semis. The Zags controlled most of this game, and looked to have a trip to the Elite Eight all but wrapped up. But a late charge from Syracuse and a few blown opportunities at the end for Gonzaga was enough for the Orange to come away with a 3-point victory and a trip to the Midwest Region final. Freshman Tyler Lydon blocked a Josh Perkins attempt with about 1 second left on the clock to seal the victory.

Elite Eight
Def. 1-seed Virginia 68-62
The friendly match-ups were over for Syracuse, and many expected their magical run to end against 1-seed Virginia. For a second straight game, Syracuse looked dead in the water midway through the second half. But they were able to muster up another late surge, coming back from a 14-point halftime deficit to take the lead with less than five minutes to go. From there they were able to hold off the Cavaliers and advance to the Final Four. It was a very uncharacteristic meltdown from Tony Bennett’s squad, but you have to credit Syracuse for contributing to that meltdown. It was another big game for freshman Malachi Richardson, who scored 23 points to lead the way for the Orange.

How They Got Here: Jim Boeheim
Like him or hate him (most people hate him), Jim Boeheim is an extremely good basketball coach. His players played some really good games, and were able to execute a couple amazing comebacks, but when you look at how they were able to pull this off, you look at the coaching. Boeheim made some genius decisions in the Gonzaga and Virginia games. Syracuse runs a 2-3 zone defense almost religiously, and they rarely pressure in the full court. But down double-digits against both the Zags and Virginia, Boeheim picked the perfect time to dial up the pressure, leading those teams to rush and turn the ball over a ton, helping his team make two incredible comebacks. They players executed the plan, but Boeheim cleary out-coached Mark Few and Tony Bennett, and you have to credit him for it. I don’t think Syracuse would be here if it wasn’t for Boeheim.

Why They’ll be National Champs:
You expect the chip on their shoulder to just disappear? It won’t, especially with some of Jim Boeheim’s recent comments. He has his team thinking that they deserve to be here while nobody else thinks they do. That could be all the motivation that they need to go out and win the National Championship. North Carolina is a tough match-up, and the Tar Heels beat Syracuse twice during the regular season. But the second meeting, which was each team’s second-to-last game of the season, went down to the wire in Chapel Hill, with UNC winning 75-70. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone can give teams fits, and a lot of times, it forces teams to hit perimeter jump shots to beat it. If Syracuse can force UNC to shoot from the perimeter (in a shooting grave of a stadium, as I’ve discussed previously), I think they can win this game, and then do the same thing to either Nova or Oklahoma in the title game. I don’t think it’s far-fetched at all to think that Syracuse can win the National Championship.

Why They Won’t Win the Title:
From a talent perspective, Syracuse is easily the most over-matched team remaining in the field. Michael Gbinije is an extremely good player, Trevor Cooney is experienced and Malachi Richardson is starting to blossom as a star player, but compared to North Carolina, Villanova and Oklahoma, Syracuse is on a much lower level. When it gets to this point, the cream usually rises to the top, and I don’t think Syracuse is the cream here. On the court, North Carolina has the perfect team to attack and win against the Orange’s zone defense. Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson can shoot over the top, and Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson can get to the middle and run the baseline, which could lead to some really easy buckets. Syracuse is going to have a tough time slowing down the Tar Heels, and that could end up meaning the end of this magical run.

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