Syracuse Basketball: 5 Predictions for Orange in 2014 NCAA Tournament
In predicting the course of the Syracuse Orange in the NCAA tournament, it is important to note how unpredictable the season has been so far.
Syracuse (27-5) began the season without its point guard from last season, and likely NBA Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter-Williams, as well as seniors Brandon Triche and James Southerland.
In Carter-Williams’ place was Canadian freshman Tyler Ennis, who was snubbed for the McDonald’s All-American game as a high school senior and was not in anyone’s conversation when the nation’s best freshmen were being touted.
Unpredictably, Ennis turned out to be one of the best freshmen in the nation and helped guide the Orange to their best start in school history.
In a new-look ACC, the Orange unpredictably started the season 25-0 and rose to become the No. 1 team in the land. Peaking with an overtime win against Duke at the Carrier Dome, the Orange looked like world-beaters.
Photo finish after photo finish, Syracuse managed to keep its pristine record until the unlikeliest opponent brought the Orange back down to earth.
On Wednesday, Feb. 19, former Big East foe Boston College came into Syracuse with a five-game losing streak and was the loser of eight of its last nine games, including a 10-point loss to Syracuse. The 6-19 Eagles would leave Syracuse with their seventh win and the Orange were undefeated no more.
Continuing their streak of unpredictability, the Orange lost five of their last seven, including a quick exit from the ACC tournament in their first-ever appearance.
Less than a month ago, Syracuse looked like a lock for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but injuries, poor offense and lackluster finishes made the Orange’s chances for a top seed nil.
The Orange appeared to be destined for a No. 4 or No. 5 seed. But the NCAA selection committee saw fit to reward Syracuse for its entire body of work and unpredictably, the Orange scored a No. 3 seed.
Now for the predictable, or so Syracuse fans hope.
With its first tournament game being essentially a home game in Buffalo, Thursday at 2:45 p.m. ET against Western Michigan (23-9), Syracuse can start anew and try to shake the demons of a poor finish to a wacky season.
Here’s a look at what’s in store for the Orange in the 2014 NCAA tournament.
Trevor Cooney Will Regain His Stroke
Western Michigan will be the seventh team Syracuse will face this season after a five-day layoff. In most of the previous six games, Trevor Cooney has been impressive.
Against Minnesota, Indiana, St. John’s, Villanova, Miami and Clemson, Cooney was a combined 21-of-44 (47.7 percent) from the three-point line and hit five threes in three of the games.
As Cooney’s shooting prowess made news, teams took him more seriously and he became shadowed for most of the second half of the season. Whenever Cooney is on the court, he uses a tremendous amount of energy in hopes of getting open, which could be why his three-point percentages fell from 50 percent around the midway point of the season to 37.7 percent today.
The long layoff, Syracuse's longest since Feb. 9, should do wonders for Cooney’s legs and Syracuse fans should expect a good shooting day from him.
The Transition Game Will Return
Syracuse is No. 17 in the nation with eight steals per game. With a whole new set of teams that haven’t seen its zone, Syracuse should be able to get out into transition and get out of the half-court game it’s become accustomed to as ACC opponents attempted to slow the ball against the Orange.
Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney were No. 1 and No. 2 respectively in the ACC in steals and should be able to wreak havoc on their opponents. The Orange’s long wingspan on the baseline should also cause problems for teams that don’t match Syracuse’s impressive size.
The Orange allowed only 59.5 points per game this season, good for ninth-best in the nation, and should be able to force some bad shots. Rebounds off of those shots, combined with high doses of thievery will equal a reestablished transition game.
Scoring Will Still Be an Issue
Syracuse is No. 253 in the nation with just 68.2 points per game. Most of that average was built in the early season as the Orange reached the 70-point barrier only three times this calendar year.
Part of the scoring deficiency has to do with opponents slowing down the ball. Part of it was Syracuse's lack of outside shooting and part of it was there are some very good defensive teams in the ACC.
The reason Syracuse still was able to win 14 games in conference and 27 games overall was that its defense was so good that for most of the season, the Orange didn’t need to score in bunches. The Orange’s fantastic defense, combined with their impressive offensive rebounding, allowed them freedom to take shots whenever they felt like it. As a result they never developed a free-flowing half-court offense.
This likely won’t change, so aside from the expected increase in transition baskets, don’t expect 80-point nights from Syracuse.
Jerami Grant Will Star
If C.J. Fair is the star of the team and Tyler Ennis is the emerging star, Jerami Grant is the star of the future.
Grant went from bench player to starter when DaJuan Coleman went down with a knee injury and his athleticism has already gained him a handful of spectacular highlights. Grant's absence late this season due to a bad back was felt immensely.
With Fair and Baye-Moussa Keita graduating and Tyler Ennis potentially leaving for the draft, Grant may want to showcase his immense talents as he is the best professional prospect on the Syracuse roster.
Ennis would be well-served to stay another year to develop his game and Grant could do the same but the call of the NBA is siren song. The chance to be a lottery pick is within Grant’s ability but his back could worry NBA general managers. A year of playing pain free as the offensive leader of the Orange would be enough to get Grant drafted highly.
The flip side is his back goes out on him and he regrets not leaving when he could have.
This should add up to stellar play by Grant, not because he was ever holding back, but because he has the ability and Syracuse needs him to play his best.
Syracuse Will Get Back to the Elite Eight
As poorly as it has played to close out the season, I understand that it is laughable to pick Syracuse to make a deep run in the tournament. But the Orange have been blessed with a good seed and perfect matchups, for at least a few rounds.
Western Michigan is an experienced team with a well-balanced game, but Syracuse’s defense will prove to be too much for the Broncos.
Syracuse will likely play Ohio State in what would be a revenge game for the Orange. Two years ago, Ohio State knocked top-seeded Syracuse out in the Elite Eight round. Ohio State has some stars but the team has been very inconsistent, even more so than Syracuse.
A win against the Buckeyes would put the Orange in their fifth Sweet 16 in the last six seasons.
After that, the Orange would likely face No. 2 seed Kansas. Kansas could still be without center Joel Embiid, but still has phenom Andrew Wiggins and Perry Ellis to pick up the slack. Kansas is a tough matchup, but its inability to attack Syracuse from the three-point line will make the Orange very difficult to defend.
Winning this game would put the Orange in their third straight Elite Eight.
Beyond that, it would be very difficult to predict the Orange to go any deeper. Assuming Syracuse will play top-seeded Florida, the road should end with the Gators.
Florida has a well-balanced attack and can light it up from the outside. The Gators present a nightmare scenario for the Orange and should advance to the Final Four.
However, if a team gets to Florida before the Orange, all bets are off.
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