Joining me today for a deep cut of pre-game grilling is Michael McAllister of Syracuse hoops website Nation of Orange.
Everyone knows by now that the top-seeded Orange (33-2) lost center Fabricio Melo to academic issues, but McAllister tells us 6'9" freshman Rakeem Christmas has been impressive in the starting lineup. Among Syracuse's excellent wings, McAllister thinks Dion Waiters will be the one with the ball at crunch time.
Personally I think this game is tailor-made for Mike Bruesewitz to slither into the zone's gaps and rack up second chances. Wisconsin (26-9) obviously has to hit shots, but their ability to slow Syracuse in transition will be equally as important.
Don't forget to check out Nation of Orange for the Badger-centric portion of our Q&A exchange.
B5Q: Tell us what you've personally seen to be the differences between Syracuse with Fab Melo and Syracuse without Fab Melo. Judging from the UNC-Asheville scare, his absence seemed to be a real shock to the system. How much does this limit what the Orange try to do during games now?
Nation of Orange: The main difference is mentally. Syracuse's first loss of the season was against Notre Dame, which was their first game without Fab Melo. The Asheville game was also their first without Fab after losing him for a second time. The news came so late, I don't think the players had time to prepare mentally in order to focus on the game itself. They're lucky that lethargic performance came against Asheville. If that had come against Kansas State, or a Wisconsin type team, they would've lost, probably by a lot.
That said, the main tangible difference is defensively. Rakeem is about four or five inches shorter than Melo, and is not as bulky. Melo's presence in the middle of the zone allowed everyone else to take more risks which created more turnovers. The guards especially at the top of the zone went for more steals because they knew Fab would erase a lot of their mistakes. He won Big East defensive player of the year for a reason. He alters shots, blocks shots, and intimdates opposing teams. Melo gave the team a certain swagger.
B5Q: Likewise, how have Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita filled those shoes during the tournament? Has the rebounding suffered even more? Also, is there anything that Christmas does better than Melo?
NoO: Keita is what he is at this point. A serviceable big man that can give you 10-15 minutes or so. If you have to rely on him for 25-30 minutes, you're probably in trouble. He struggles too much offensively, and is very slender. He can be pushed around by bigger guys.
Christmas on the other hand has stepped up in Melo's absence. Ironically, if you compare Fab's regular season numbers (8 points, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks, 57% shooting) to Christmas' numbers in the Tournament (7 points, 9 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 58% shooting), they're very comparable. In fact, Christmas might be a better rebounder than Fab. He's certainly not the same defensive presence, but he was a McDonald's All-American. A lot of people forget that. He's a smart defender who can block shots, and is learning to play zone very well. Most of his early season struggles were because he was playing power-forward. He's more comfortable at center, and has played that way.
B5Q: Describe what went wrong for the Orange in their two losses (feel free to include close wins like OT with Georgetown as well). How might Wisconsin take advantage those weaknesses?
NoO: In the Notre Dame loss, the team just looked a little nervous without Fab. They almost acted like everyone had to do much more than they normally do in order to make up for his absence. Once they figured out how to play without him, they were fine. The Cincinnati loss was mainly because the Bearcats hit 9 of their first 11 three-pointers and got out to a huge lead. Syracuse came back, but it was too large of a deficit to overcome.
They've had some close wins as well. Generally, the story has been opposing team's getting a lot of offensive rebounds, and slowing the game down. Teams that have slowed the game down and limited the Orange's opportunities in transition have been successful. But this Syracuse team has won a lot of games in that mold as well. They're very resiliant, versatile, and can win any type of game.
Wisconsin must shoot well from the outside. Syracuse is very athletic, and very talented. If they can hit threes and control the boards, they can win. Syracuse gave up 25 offensive rebounds against Kansas State. That could be a key for the Badgers.
B5Q: Don't take this as sacrilegious but, do Syracuse fans ever deep down wish the Orange played a little more man-to-man? Considering all the long, athletic recruits you reel in, this bunch could be a suffocating, extended defense.
NoO: There is a group of fans that always harps on the man vs zone thing. Every time Syracuse loses, sports talk radio is flooded with "they would've won if they had played man." But it's important to remember Boeheim recruits for the zone. That's why the guards are bigger guards. Scoop and Triche are both 6'4 guards, and Waiters is that size as well. Michael Carter-Williams is 6'5 as a point-guard. It makes it harder to see over them. Syracuse does press some, and because of their athleticism, it has been successful in stretches. But they just don't utilize it consistently. They also primarily practice zone defense. It's what they do, it's their identity. So going away from it is probably not as realistic as some fans suggest. Bottom line, regardless of which defense you play, it's about execution. Scheme can be a little overrated in my opinion.
B5Q: For those who haven't seen Syracuse play, what style of offense can we expect from them on Thursday? Is it motion-based, do they run the pick-and-roll, clear outs, etc? Does Scoop Jardine run the show or is the ball spread around well?
NoO: Scoop runs the show, absolutely. Sometimes they run isolation for Dion Waiters or Kris Joseph. But it's a lot of ball screens and rolling off of them. They prefer to play in the open floor where their athleticism shines. They are the best transition team in the country. In the half court, you will often see Scoop or Waiters with the ball, with bigs running screens for them. They will then penetrate and take it themselves, or kick to an open player. That's their primary half-court offense. They do mix in some isolation for Waiters and Joseph as I mentioned, and also Brandon Triche. Triche is so strong that it's difficult for other guards to defend him when he drives.
B5Q: Syracuse has a bevy of tall and talented wing players. Kris Joseph appears to be the alpha dog of the group. What's the pecking order?
NoO: Kris Joseph is the alpha dog of the wings. He's a senior with a lot of experience. He can shoot, drive, and hit the pull-up jumper as well. Right now, James Southerland is playing the best. But C.J. Fair has been the most consistent all year. Fair has a good mid-range jumper, is one of their best rebounders, and is a very good defender. Southerland blows assignments sometimes along the baseline defensively. But he's the team's best shooter from the outside. When he gets hot, he can hit three or four in a row real quick.
B5Q: James Southerland has been one of the highlights of the tourney so far. Has he been providing this spark all year long or is this a rather new development?
NoO: Early in the season, he couldn't miss. At one point he was shooting over 60% from the three-point line. But he seemed to disappear in bigger games (Florida, Stanford, Big East games). He made some big shots at NC State, but started really coming along late in the season. Especially in the Big East tournament, he started shooting well. That's always been the key with him, is whether he's making shots. But recently, his rebounding has dramatically improved, which has led to him getting more minutes even when his shot isn't there.
B5Q: Wisconsin shoots more about three more 3-pointers per game than Syracuse. But Syracuse five guys (Jardine, Waiters, Triche, Joseph, Southerland) that have attempted at least 90 this season, all over them shooting around 35%. Do you feel outside shooting is the strength of this team?
NoO: Not at all. There have been games where they miss a lot of open threes. Against Louisville on the road, they made only one basket from outside the paint. And that was not because of lack of attempts. They've had games where they've gone 1/15 from beyond the arc, or 5/23, or something along those lines. They've had solid games as well. But the key is not taking a ton of them. They really should be around 10-15 attempts. When they start getting into 20-25 or more attempts, it's too many. The best shooter is Southerland. All four of the shooters you mentioned are streaky. Triche hasn't shot well from the outside in awhile.
B5Q: If Thursday's game comes down to the final possession, who's taking the last shot for the Orange?
NoO: Dion Waiters will have the ball. He may not shoot it, but he'll start with it. Most likely it will be him, Joseph, or Scoop. Boeheim loves to rely on his seniors. But Waiters it the best offensive player on the team, and the best at creating his own shot. The best option would be for Waiters to start with the ball at the top of the key, and penetrate. If the defense collapses, he can hit the open man. If they don't, he can take it to the hoop himself.
B5Q: You mentioned on your site the other day the difficulties Jim Boeheim has had against Big Ten teams, as well as his struggles in the Sweet 16. Is there anything generic about the style of Big Ten teams that naturally causes problems for Syracuse under Boeheim?
NoO: Not really. The Big 10 always has a reputation for being very good defensively. But the nature of the one-and-done tournament is strange things happen. In four of the six losses to Big 10 teams, Syracuse was the lower seed. So they weren't expected to win. They've only played against the Big 10 twice since 1990, so it's not like there's been a lot of recent issues. I think it's one of those stats that's interesting, but doesn't really mean much.
B5Q: Should we expect Syracuse to have a sizable home court advantage in Boston or will the underdog Badgers pick up enough "temporary fans" to even things out?
NoO: There will be a big contingent of Syracuse fans there. Always is. The Orange travel as well as any fan base in college basketball. But Ohio State and Wisconsin fans also travel well. So there will be a decent amount of those fans there. Buckeye fans will most likely be pulling for Wisconsin because of conference affiliation, and the upset factor. I think the crowd will be a good crowd, with a small home court advantage, but certainly not like it was in Albany in 2003.
B5Q: Finally, think back over all Syracuse has endured this year: the Bernie Fine scandal, the drug scandal, the Melo suspension/ineligibilty. What are your thoughts about the state of the program -- is there trouble down the pike for Boeheim at all? Have these incidents tarnished an otherwise unbelievable season for you?
NoO: The incidents haven't tarnished anything in my mind. They've actually made this year's success all the more unbelievable. To think, with everything you mentioned, this team is 33-2 and two wins away from the Final Four. It's crazy. It has been a roller coaster ride for sure. But we have to keep some perspective. The Bernie Fine and drug scandal were off the court. The team was able to dismiss those and focus on basketball. The drug scandal was also something Syracuse had self-reported years ago, so it was nothing new to them even though it was to the public. The Fab Melo issues were unavoidable, because it directly impacted this team on the court. But I've been impressed with the mental strength and resolve this team has shown all year. It might be the most resiliant team Syracuse has ever had. It's a real credit to the players and the coaching staff to have the season they've had.
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