Indiana narrowly escaped its near-death experience with Temple in the Round of 32, but if the Hoosiers want to advance past their Sweet 16 bout with Syracuse, they're going to have to play a whole lot better.
The fourth-seeded Orange and top-seeded Hoosiers meet up Thursday night at approximately 9:45 p.m. inside the Verizon Center in Washington D.C. in the semifinals of the East Regional. The winner will face off with either No. 2 Miami or No. 3 Marquette -- which tip at 7:15 p.m. -- on Saturday with a trip to the Final Four at stake.
If you call a national championship game decided by a last-second shot history, then there's a tad bit of history between Indiana and Syracuse -- covered here (from the Indiana perspective) and here (from the other side) -- although none of that really matters as far as this game is concerned.
Thursday's matchup should be a dandy. In some ways, Indiana (29-6) is a team perfectly suited to beat Syracuse, and the Orange (28-9) are exactly the kind of squad that can give the Hoosiers fits.
A lot of teams employ a 2-3 zone, but no one plays it quite like Syracuse. The Orange, always full of length and athleticism, are great at it. What makes Syracuse's zone so vaunted isn't some magic potion. They play it every game, Orange coach Jim Boeheim knows how to teach it and he recruits players specifically for it -- namely long guards and forwards who can close out and contest shooters while also causing havoc in the paint.
The zone is operating at a high level this season. Syracuse allows the third-best defensive field goal percentage in the nation (37.3 percent), and the Orange are sixth in three-point percentage allowed (28.9 percent). They force teams to beat them from the outside, and most teams can't do it.
Christian Watford (48 percent), Jordan Hulls (46 percent) and Victor Oladipo (43 percent) all shoot over 40 percent from beyond the arc. Will Sheehey (36 percent) isn't far behind. These guys, especially Hulls, are a lot more likely to shake free in the half-court when facing a zone as opposed to man, and none of them will hesitate to pull the trigger when given the opportunity. Sheehey's excellent -- seriously, excellent -- movement without the ball will play nicely, as well.
Cody Zeller isn't a dominate post player right now. He's not someone you dump it to on the block and get out of the way. Fortunately for Indiana, he won't be doing much of that in this game. Instead, he'll be operating in the high post, where he can play to his strengths -- quickness, athleticism and passing.
A zone can thwart the inside game by collapsing down. A zone can take away perimeter shots by extending the wings out to the 3-point line. But a zone, my friends, can't do both. With that said, Indiana is still going to have to knock down jump shots, something it does pretty well as it shoots 41 percent from 3-point land and 49 percent overall.
After being bogged down in the half court against Temple, Indiana should look a lot more like the Hoosiers we love in this one. Syracuse isn't too fast-paced (64.8 possessions per game), but the Orange have athletes who like to get out and go whenever possible. Like Indiana, Syracuse has struggled with its half-court offense at times this season, according to those at nunesmagician.com, who have done some outstanding work in anticipation of the big game.
While Indiana -- who is in the midst of back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances after making just one (2002) from 1995-2011 -- matches up well offensively, the same can't be said for the other side of the court. The Orange boast an NBA-sized starting lineup of 6-foot-6 Michael Carter-Williams, 6-4 Triche, 6-8 C.J. Fair, 6-8 James Southerland and 6-9 Rakeem Christmas, with 6-10 Baye Keita seeing solid minutes off the bench. That puts the Hoosiers in a bit of a bind.
With a pair of minuscule starting guards in Kevin Ferrell and Hulls, both generously listed at 6-0, the Hoosiers are vastly out-sized. Toss in the fact that Oladipo, who is just 6-5, typically defends the opposition's top perimeter player -- which would be Carter-Williams in this instance -- and things only get more complicated. I'm not quite sure what Indiana is going to do. The situation is somewhat alleviated when Sheehey (6-7) is in the game for either Hulls or Ferrell.
Carter-Willams pulls the strings for Syracuse, averaging 11.8 points and 7.6 assists. Fair (14.5), Triche (13.8) and Southerland (13.7) cap a balanced scoring attack. Fair snags a team-high 6.9 boards and hits 49 percent of his 3-point tries, although he's only shot 59 treys. Carter-Willams, a menace atop the zone, swipes 2.7 steals per game.
My guess at the matchups goes like this: Ferrell-Carter-Williams, Hulls-Triche, Oladipo-Fair, Watford-Southerland and Zeller-Christmas. Can Yogi guard someone who is six inches taller than him? Will Hulls be able to defend a guy to whom he's surrendering four inches and nearly 30 pounds? We will see. I suppose zone is always an option, since we played it so well this season (sarcasm). In all seriousness, Indiana will go zone at some point.
We can play the "who guards who" game for a while, but, to me, this game comes down to one thing: rebounding. Twice this season (Butler and Minnesota) Indiana has lost a game because of its inability to grab defensive rebounds. Statistically and size-wise, Syracuse and Minnesota are twins. That should scare you. Both teams have big guards and rangy forwards.
In the game at Minnesota, the Golden Gophers rebounded more of their missed shots than Indiana did en route to knocking off the Hoosiers. Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams relentlessly attacked the glass. For the season, Minnesota averaged 12.8 offensive rebounds per game. Syracuse is right there with them at 12.4, good enough for 10th in the nation.
Indiana isn't a bad rebounding team -- actually, at 38.6 per game, it's one of the country's best (24th nationally), and rebounding is a big reason why the Hoosiers won the season finale at Michigan -- but it's had games where it seemed like the Hoosiers didn't want to compete on the glass. That can't happen in this one. I repeat: can't happen.
The Hoosiers have had a remarkable knack for winning games against top-flight competition, beating Michigan (twice), Michigan State (twice), Ohio State and Georgetown. We'll see if Indiana can answer the bell once again, this time against Syracuse in what is undoubtedly another heavyweight battle.