The last time the Orange met the Golden Eagles, SU was arguably at its lowest point in the season. The entered the Bradley Center with three straight losses, Dion Waiters was in the doghouse, as was James Southerland, and the team was coming off a 22-point home drubbing from Seton Hall. Things looked their bleakest, and it didn’t get any better for the Orange that Saturday afternoon.
Jae Crowder carved up the zone that afternoon, hitting eight shots from the field and eight from the line. Darius Johnson-Odom, a spotty shooter, scored 17 points on seven shots. The Orange was outrebounded, lost the turnover battle and struggled from the charity stripe, and the Golden Eagles notched a 76-70 win. In March, though, the stakes are raised, and Syracuse bounced back to finish the regular season strong while Marquette stumbled across the finish line. In its first round game against Xavier, though, Marquette put the clamps on the Musketeers defensively, stifling Tu Holloway to a paltry five points on 1-8 shooting in the process.
Friday’s performance by the Golden Eagles appears to be a fluke, though, considering their season to this point. Buzz’s squad doesn’t defend all that well against perimeter shooting, doesn’t apply a ton of defensive pressure, and their inside players provide size but not a ton of skill. Despite inconsistency on the defensive end, especially in the backcourt, the Golden Eagles may be best served to force the issue from Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche, a pair that hasn’t been playing anything near its potential in recent games.
For the Orange to make the Sweet 16 for its third straight season, the backcourt has to be a significant factor. This is a game in which I see Dion Waiters getting more chances than usual with his ability to drive and either finish or kick (usually finish). Fab Melo has improved significantly since the last meeting, but is still just coming along. The same goes for Baye Moussa Keita, but perhaps no one on the Orange has stepped up more lately than CJ Fair. The freshman had one of the quietest 14/7 games I’ve ever seen and is very smart with his shot selection and ball-handling, considering his height.
In the end, I see Syracuse gutting this one out on Sunday to advance to New Jersey for the regional semifinal, where it would have a massive crowd behind it. The chance of elimination alone should be enough to keep the Orange focused, but the opportunity to play so close to home should make things appetizing for Syracuse. I see a 73-65 win on the horizon.