Pitoniak: Orange men have nothing to lose

A friend of mine who bleeds Orange says that Syracuse University is now playing with the house's money.

I think that's a good way to look at it as the SU basketball team prepares to play in the school's fifth Final Four Saturday night.

A second NCAA championship obviously remains the goal, but given where the Orange men were just three weeks ago, just making it this far in the tournament is pretty remarkable.

The oddsmakers have installed them as two-point underdogs against a Michigan Wolverines team that obliterated a very good Florida team by 20 points Sunday afternoon. Sophomore guard Trey Burke - the Sporting News' National Player of the Year - averages 18.8 points per game and he, Nik Stauskas and Tim Hardaway Jr. have the kind of outside shooting ability to defuse a zone. Mitch McGary, a 6-foot-10 freshman, and Glenn Robinson III can rebound and finish underneath.

Perhaps what's most impressive about the Wolverines is that, despite fielding a young lineup, they don't usually beat themselves. This is borne out by the fact they have averaged the fewest turnovers (9.4 per game) in the nation this season and have been whistled for the second fewest fouls.

So John Beilein's crew is going to pose one tough challenge for the Orange men.

But let's not forget that Michigan's Big Ten brethren also posed a huge challenge, with an inside-outside game that was supposed to do in SU, and look what happened?

Just as the Orange men haven't faced a trio of 3-point shooters as good as Stauskas (45 percent), Burke (38 percent) and Hardaway (39 percent), the Wolverines haven't faced a zone defense as long and as tenacious as Syracuse's 2-3.

Vanquished NCAA opponents Montana, Cal, Indiana and Marquette averaged a paltry 45.7 points vs. Syracuse and shot just 29 percent from the field and 16 percent (14-for-92) from beyond the 3-point arc. During that span the Orange men have forced 67 turnovers and allowed just 61 field goals. They've averaged 11 steals and six blocks.

Their most impressive performance occurred in their Sweet 16 matchup with top-seed Indiana, when they held the nation's third-most prolific scoring offense to a season low 50 points. Then, Saturday, the Orange topped that clamp-down by allowing Marquette to score just 39 - an Elite Eight record low by a team during the shot-clock era.

The matchup of Michael Carter Williams and Brandon Triche against Burke and Company should be fun to watch. MCW has played like a top-five NBA draft pick of late. He had 24 points against Indiana and contributed 12 points, eight rebounds, six assists and five steals, while committing just one turnover vs. Marquette.

Beilein, who is coaching in his first Final Four after 1,074 games, is familiar with the Syracuse zone, having faced it several times during his days as the head man at West Virginia and Canisius. He also became conversant with it while coaching at Division II LeMoyne College, just a few miles from the Carrier Dome. Having a week to prep for it will be helpful, but it's one of those things that's difficult to replicate in practice.

Michigan and Syracuse have experienced somewhat parallel seasons. Both got off to hot starts - the Wolverines won their first 16 games while the Orange men won their first 10 - and both stumbled down the stretch, Michigan losing five of its last 10 regular-season games, and Syracuse seven of its last 12.

But each team appears to have returned to early-season form.

I think it will come down to which backcourt plays better and if SU's backline of center Baye Moussa Keita and forwards C.J. Fair and James Southerland can continue doing the job defensively.

Of course, this all may be a moot point, given the way Louisville is playing. The Cardinals pummeled Duke into submission in the second half of Sunday's Elite Eight contest. The domination conjured memories of a similar second-half pounding of SU in the Big East title game three weeks earlier.

Regardless what happens, the Orange men clearly have redeemed themselves in this tournament. Anything from here on out is gravy for Jim Boeheim's 30-9 squad.

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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