It would appear the matchup Syracuse should fear most on the road to the Final Four is the potential fourth-round game against Vanderbilt. The Commodores showed how good they can be by going on a late 16-2 run to upset top-ranked Kentucky, 71-64, in the SEC Tourney Sunday. In Jeffrey Taylor and John Jenkins, Vandy has two long-distance sharpshooters who can bust a zone. They are trey bien.
But as I prepare to fill out my bracket sheets and contemplate what to do with SU, the No. 1 seed in the East, I contend there is a team the Orangemen should be more concerned about than Vandy or even Ohio State, whom they could very well meet in the Elite Eight.
To me the team Jim Boeheim's squad should concentrate most on is . . . itself.
All this talk about matchups, etc., won't mean a thing if SU doesn't shake off some of the problems it's encountered in recent weeks - problems that were on full display in the Orangemen's loss to Cincinnati in the Big East semifinals Friday night. The Bearcats torched SU by hitting eight of their first 10 shots from beyond the arc. The Orange guards didn't get out and contest the shooters the way they had for most of this astounding season. The defensive intensity was lacking early on, which is why a very good Cincinnati team was able to jump out to a 17-point lead.
If the Orange play that listlessly in the NCAAs they are going to be in for an early departure and that 31-2 record, best in school history, will wind up looking pretty hollow.
This is a team whose success is predicated in large part on tenacious team defense, so it behooves SU to come out full throttle, starting with Thursday's opener against a 16th-seeded UNC-Asheville team they really should pummel.
The other thing the Orangemen are going to need is better play from their seniors. Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph were putrid at the Big East tournament. The two poor showings in the Garden by Scoop came on the heels of a zero-point performance in his Carrier Dome finale eight days ago. Look for Jim Boeheim to have a fairly quick hook if Jardine continues to be careless with the basketball the way he was in New York.
On the plus side, Dion Waiters showed in his two Big East tournament games that he is ready to be the go-to-guy you must have in order to win a national championship. He further enhanced his NBA stock (sorry, folks, but he's definitely declaring for the draft this year) by scoring 46 points, including a career-high 28 while paring down that huge Cincy lead and making a game of it down the stretch.
My only concern, though, is that Waiters might let those performances go to his head. One of the other keys to this team's success has been its balanced scoring and unselfishness. Waiters is clearly the guy you want to get the ball to if things are tight, but he can't go out there in these NCAA games thinking about improving his draft position.
Another big key will be the play of center Fab Melo. I think SU needs to do a better job of pounding the ball inside to him and he needs to really step things up, a la Rony Seikaly during the Orangemen's run to the national title game in 1987. He must assert himself more as an inside scorer and that will open up so many options offensively for SU. I'd also like to see the guards and forwards be a little more aggressive and drive more to the basket. Despite 13 threes the other night, the Orange is not a great perimeter team. In fact, as their 159th ranking in 3-point shooting percentage attests, they're middle-of-the-road at best. I know they had to do a lot of chucking the other night because it was the quickest way to cut into the deficit, but they can't afford to settle for outside shots so much. They need to take it to the hoop with vigor.
It also would be nice to jump out to a lead for a change and keep building on it for a change.
As I mentioned, first up is UNC-Asheville. The Bulldogs went 24-9 and won the Big South Conference regular-season title and tournament. But they didn't beat a single team in the RPI top 100. They lost to North Carolina State by nine on the road, to North Carolina by 16 at home and to Connecticut by 10 on a neutral court.
They are a guard-centric team that relies on the outside shooting of Matt Dickey (16.5 points per game), J.P. Primm (15.3 ppg.) and Chris Stephenson (13.1 ppg.). So, Jardine, Brandon Triche and Waiters are going to need to get out on them and contest their shots.
SU really should win this one going-away, setting up a Saturday meeting with either Kansas State or Southern Mississippi. That game will be more challenging, but the Orange again will be favored, and if serve holds, they will play the aforementioned Vanderbilt in the Sweet 16.
With the subregionals in Pittsburgh and the regionals in Boston, they will have a geographical advantage that could translate into a slight home-away-from-home-court advantage the deeper they advance.
I think the loss in the Big East semifinals might wind up being a good thing for them. It knocked them down a few notches and the nature of the loss - via 3's raining over their vaunted 2-3 zone - will force them to concentrate on playing with the defensive intensity that helped produce 31 wins.
I believe they are capable of beating anyone in their bracket, but it's really up to them. If they don't play smothering defense, if they become selfish and careless in their half-court offense, if they don't do a better job of rebounding, they could very well be won-and-done, tarnishing what they achieved during the regular season.
Scott Pitoniak has covered Syracuse University basketball for more than three decades and is the author of Color HIm Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story.
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