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Pitoniak: SU will have its hands full vs. Indiana
The odds of Syracuse winning it all have improved to 12-1. (That's a pretty significant jump, because after the way the Orange men stumbled to the regular-season finish line with four losses in their final five, those odds were probably 100-1 two weeks ago.)
And the odds of Jim Boeheim blowing a gasket this week after being asked about Keith Smart for the second or third time are 2-1. (OK, I made those odds up but you can bet the SU coach isn't going to be in any mood to re-live Smart's game-winning shot that gave Indiana the 1987 championship at the expense of the Orange.)
The Cuse clearly is playing some of their most inspired basketball in recent weeks, with five wins in six games since the post-season commenced. But they're going to need to turn in the type of effort they displayed on January 19, when they knocked off No. 1 Louisville on the road, if they are going to reach the Elite Eight for a second consecutive year.
Indiana awaits in a Sweet 16 game Thursday night in the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., and the Hoosiers will bring with them the best offense the Orange men have faced all season. By far.
Seven-foot, sophomore center Cody Zeller and 6-5 junior guard Victor Oladipo are a pick-your-poison combo, and with Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls both shooting above 46 percent from beyond the arc, the Hoosiers feature arguably the most balanced and potent scoring attack in the land. Still, as we learned in their narrow victory against Temple Sunday, the Hoosiers aren't so dominating that they can't be stopped by a tenacious defense, and Syracuse certainly boasts one.
The length and aggression of SU's vaunted 2-3 zone created plenty of havoc in the Orange men's first two NCAA tournament games, as Montana and Cal combined to make just 8-of-52 three-point shots and turned the ball over frequently. Admittedly, those teams combined probably couldn't give the Hoosiers a game, but the zone does cause matchup problems, especially if you aren't used to facing it.
But will it be enough?
On paper, this looks like a bad matchup for SU. I can see Zeller having a field day against Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita inside. And Oladipo is not only a great scorer; he's a shutdown defender who could give Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche all sorts of problems.
For SU to have any chance of winning, MCW and Triche are going to need to be smart and aggressive. They are going to have to keep the turnovers to a minimum and attack the basket.
The Orange defense is going to need to help out Christmas and Keita by sagging back on occasion and denying Zeller the ball.
James Southerland will need to have a hot hand from three-land and and he's going to have to help out on the boards and stay out of foul trouble.
C.J. Fair, the Baltimore native who will be playing just 45 minutes from where he grew up, will need to use his height advantage and score early and often like he did against Cal when he took what was essentially a Bears home crowd out of the game.
And SU will need to make at least 70 percent of its free throws. (MCW, by the way, is just 6-for-23 from the line in his last three games. Pathetic.)
Indiana coach Tom Crean has done a magnificent job restoring the Hoosiers program. He took it over six years ago when it was in a shambles after NCAA recruiting violations. After records of 6-25, 10-21 and 12-20, the Hoosiers went 27-9 a year ago and are 29-6 this season. He's somewhat familiar with SU, having faced the Orange twice during his nine seasons as Marquette's head coach.
Crean's also famous for being married to the sister of NFL head coaches Jim and John Harbaugh. He can be a feisty guy, like his brothers-in-law, as evidenced by a post-game blowup with a Michigan assistant coach a few weeks back.
Boeheim, as we all know, can be feisty, too.
He lost his team for a stretch there, when SU lost seven of 12 games while stumbling into the post-season. But he's clearly found it. And if the Orange were somehow able to knock off the favored Hoosiers, it would rank as one of the better coaching jobs of his illustrious career.
Author and columnist Scott Pitoniak has followed SU hoops since the mid-1960s and has covered them since the mid-1970s. He is author of "Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story." You can read more of his stuff at www.scottpitoniak.com.
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