It feels like the basketball season has just been put on hold since last Tuesday. With the Bucket Game coming up this weekend and the basketball coaches going radio silence for awhile, I kind of forgot that the season was going on. But now all of that is over. Football season has come to a somewhat disappointing end and it is officially all basketball, all the time in the state of Indiana. So for that first test of everyone's focus, Indiana has to go into the Carrier Dome and try and pull out a win over a experienced and battle tested Syracuse. No small task.
The Hoosiers know all too well what Syracuse can offer in the way of resistance. Many fans are still reeling over that Sweet Sixteen loss last season and another sizeable loss could cause an aneurysm or two among some of the older folks. But I don't foresee it being all that bad. It has a very high potential to get sloppy, but I think the Hoosiers actually physically match up better than they did last season.
Indiana is bringing one thing that it really lacked last year that can make a big difference against the infamous Syracuse 2-3 zone. That is an experienced point guard. Last year there was a ESPN commercial about making tournament brackets and two individuals were gathered at a water cooler talking about their picks. One of the men stated, "but their freshman point guard is a disaster." Who would have known how unintentionally prescient that commercial would turn out to be. In 23 minutes of play, Yogi Ferrell finished the game with an offensive rating of 7 (!). No, that isn't a typo. In 23 minutes of play, Ferrell generated .07 points per possession. Jordan Hulls wasn't any better at .15 points. That's the type of disastrous play that no team is going to recover from.
That won't happen this year. Ferrell is a completely different player and Indiana's second guard now stands at 6-6. Those changes alone are going to allow the Hoosiers offense to work a lot better against the length of the Syracuse zone. They're going to be able to have the size and speed to be able to attack the zone instead of attempting to overload it like they did in the game last year.
Shooting is obviously not this Indiana team's strong suit, so the key for IU is to go at the zone and get into the lane. They aren't going to get ball movement to set them up for shooting over the zone. That's the quickest way to get killed. Syracuse's defense is actually quite good at getting teams to settle. The basic concept of the zone is going to leave some holes, but the key is to be smart enough to pass up on the 18 footer and get in for a higher percentage shot. I've convinced myself that Indiana's youth is going to help them in this aspect. We're a team loaded with slashers that want to get to the basket, no matter the obstacle. You don't see this Hoosier team settling for jump shots. Last year Indiana did and they went 2-15 from distance.
On defense, I think the key player for this game is Jeremy Hollowell. He's going to draw defending Jerami Grant. Grant through his sophomore season has been electric. At 1.26 points per possession his biggest strength is his strong rebounding. He's currently grabbing 13.7% of all available offensive rebounds to him which is good enough for 116th in the nation. Hollowell, on the other hand, has struggled as a defensive rebounder. He doesn't always show the awareness necessary to hit the boards on defense. This is going to be the biggest key to the game in my opinion.
Syracuse is iffy at defensive rebounding but among the elite teams on the offensive rebounding glass. I really think this is where the battle is going to come down to. There are 9 different players among the two teams that would be considered very good rebounders on the offensive boards. The team that does the best job of cleaning up the oppositions misses is going to control the game. If the Hoosiers can do a great job of banging down low and getting defensive rebounds they can start fast breaks to generate baskets against a Syracuse defense that isn't set up. Rebound, rebound, rebound. Do that and Indiana will win.
Other players to watch for from Syracuse are CJ Fair and Tyler Ennis. Fair is a guy that has struggled a bit early in the season, but is ultimately the engine that pushes this Orange team. He doesn't take over games, but if you leave him alone he's going to hit jumpers on you all day. If he's shooting well off the dribble, then Indiana may be sunk. Luckily so far he's been very inconsistent this year.
Probably the most enjoyable match-up tonight is going to be the freshman Ennis versus Yogi. So far Ennis has put himself in the discussion as one of the top point guards in the nation in this early season. He passes the ball well, takes care of it and scores at a very high rate. He's comfortable being the guy that needs to score or just sitting back and facilitating. Twice this year he has scored 2 or less points and twice he's broken 15 (including a 28 point outburst). Not the best shooter, he's still willing and capable of hitting the wide open three with consistency. Ferrell's speed and strength is going to be key to knocking him off his rhythm and getting him to force some things under pressure.
In the end, it is going to take a complete effort from the Hoosiers. I didn't really even touch on Noah Vonleh, but it should be needless to say that without Vonleh keeping himself in the game and remaining physical the Hoosiers can't overcome the Syracuse front court. Will Sheehey is also going to need to be the voice of reason that keeps Indiana on track when the inevitable frustrations come. If Indiana can do that, if they can rebound and stay composed when things aren't going exactly as they'd like, then they have a real shot at putting up a resume win that locks them in as a tourney seed barring a meltdown in conference. It should be a good one either way. Let's hope the Hoosiers can rep the Big Ten well.