Sunday, March 21, 2010

NCAA Tournament Running Commentary: Sunday Afternoon Edition

It's no surprise that CBS selected Syracuse and Gonzaga for the nationally-televised 12:10pm start. Syracuse is a popular team in more than just upstate New York, Gonzaga is a name even the most novice college basketball recognizes instantly, and the injury to Arinze Onuaku is a story that's easy to sell.

Johnson's ability to attack the hoop, as well as shoot the 3-ball, was unmatched today by the 'Zags.

Not to mention, Syracuse is a 1-seed and was buried at 9:55 pm on Friday night.

Unfortunately for Gus Johnson fans, today's game was over with rather quickly. A competitive early 10 minutes had a few Orange fans (like me) worried ; however, it was the 3rd foul on Rick Jackson - the only legit foul the big man committed in the 1st half - that changed the game for the Cuse...for the better.

Gonzaga's offensive game plan completely stalled, their guards were unable to hit perimeter shots, the 2-3 zone set in (especially up at the top), DeShonte Riley didn't bring upon the apocalypse, and Wesley Johnson reminded viewers why he was a LEGIT selection as a 1st-team All America (the school's first since Hakim Warrick in 2005) and the Big East Player of the Year. An award voted on by Big East coaches, not sportswriters.

The Orange built a halftime lead of 15 and extended it to almost 30 before the under-12 timeout in the 2nd half. The start of each of the second-halves in Buffalo have been shooting exhibitions for Andy Rautins. Len Elmore said it best: "He has in-the-gym range." I'm sure Len was thinking of Troy Bell at some point today, though.

Whereas Brandon Triche (who used the matchup against Vermont to get his shot going) hit BIG outside shots in the 1st half, the aforementioned senior Rautins drained three early 3s in the second. Rick Jackson was a steadying influence in the paint, Kris Joseph dominated the defensive glass, and Wesley Johnson (31 points and 14 rebounds on 11-16 shooting, 4-6 from 3s) was completely unguardable. Simply put, Syracuse didn't simply rely on the outside shot after their lead was built.

The health of Onuaku next week - Cuse will play Butler on Thursday evening/night - is pivotal.
However, Syracuse isn't lost without their talented 6'9 senior. Not yet, at least.
Credit: Yahoo! Sports

Johnson didn't force outside shots, but he drained most of the one's he took. Maybe the silver lining of an injury to Onuaku is the impetus on Johnson to step up and shine. Johnson seems completely healed from a tough, underreported hand-injury - suffered in a brutal fall against Providence back in February - and perhaps remains as the top overall athlete left in the tournament field.

Boeheim used his new 7-man rotation quite well. DeShonte Riley struggled - as a freshman with limited experience should - but also added a few assists, a couple of nice box outs, and helped spell Jackson during foul trouble with size and length. Things could've gone far, far worse for the 7-foot freshman from Chicago.

As for the Sweet Sixteen matchup in the top-half of the Midwest bracket, Butler will offer a much more difficult matchup for the Orange; especially on the defensive side of the ball. Butler will take 3s, open or not, and has the ability to hit them. Question remains for Syracuse: how well can you rebound the ball and limit second chance opportunities? Gonzaga had very few, which only further hurt their outside shooting. Butler wants this game in the 50s or 60s; whereas Cuse wants to run and gun, with Johnson at the center.

Obviously, after hearing head coach Jim Boeheim talk about his star center's quad injury, Arinze Onuaku seems further away from returning than some of us had expected (hoped). Nevertheless, the lethal outside shooting of Rautins, superstar ability of Johnson, interrior presence of Jackson, versatility of Joseph (who is able to log a TON of minutes), and steadiness from the point guard position duo of Triche and Jardine (Scoop!) leave the Orange as a legit national title contender. Butler should be an improvement upon Gonzaga (of course), but Syracuse is playing great basketball right now (save a brief 5-minute stretch to close out the half against Vermont, although they were up 25 at the time).

In Salt Lake City, if Triche continues to shoot and penetrate with the steadiness and confidence he displayed in Buffalo, that position becomes a completely different one for the Orange. Particularly considering the immense talent Jardine brings as the backup point guard. There may not be a more talented backup at the position in the country.

As a Cuse fan, I couldn't be more pleased right now. But after seeing what St. Mary's and Northern Iowa have done to perceived juggernauts and Butler's final 2 minutes against upstart Murray State, cautiously optimistic is the best I can do.

1 comment:

OrangeRay said...

If Wes Johnson and Andy Rautins continue to play at the level they are currently at, and a supporting player such as Brandon Triche or Rick Jackson has a big night, it would be very tough for the Orange to lose a game.

I would feel far more comfortable with a healthy Onuaku in the lineup; it provides that much more on the defensive side, and gives us one more offensive option inside.