After a disappointing end to the regular season, the Syracuse Orange have a fresh start in the field of 64 and that new journey begins on Thursday when they take on the Western Michigan Broncos in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The Broncos finished the season 23-9 and 14-4 in the MAC conference. They won the conference’s postseason tournament, which earned them an automatic bid into the big dance. They have a couple of players that the Orange will need to lookout for. Senior guard David Brown averages 19.4 points and 1.4 steals per game. The guy I think will give the Orange the most trouble will be the 6’11” Shayne Whittington. He averages 16.3 points and is a monster on the boards, grabbing 9.1 rebounds per game. The Orange will need to keep a body on him at all times and make sure he doesn’t give his team any second chance opportunities.
The Broncos have some key players that could make an upset possible, but I think a couple of their offensive weaknesses play into the Orange’s favor. First, they shoot just 33 percent from beyond the arc. Outside of Austin Richie (a 41 percent three-point shooter) none of the Broncos will beat them from the outside of the zone, so if the Orange do a great job of keeping them out of the middle and forcing long jumpers there shouldn’t be any problems. Second, the Broncos turn the ball over 14 times per game and we know Syracuse opponents turn the ball over 13.3 times per game. This number has gone down for the Orange over the course of the season and will need to go back up for them to have success in the tournament. Look for their defense to be aggressive and try to force the Broncos into mistakes early and often.
The Broncos have played five games against RPI top 25 teams and went 2-3. They are also 1-0 against other teams that made the NCAA tournament, beating New Mexico State 70-64 back in November. They also have some experience against the 2-3 zone Syracuse features, as conference foe Eastern Michigan, under head coach and former Syracuse assistant Rob Murphy, features that defense. They beat the Eagles at home, but lost to them on the road and scored just 37 points, shot 28 percent and turned the ball over a remarkable 26 times! The Orange should look at both of those games and see what they did well against the zone in the game they won and see what their weaknesses were in the game they lost.
The Broncos are not a bad defensive team as opponents shoot just 41 percent from the field and 31 percent from three against them. The Orange will need to use their defense to start their offense. Not only do they need to force turnovers and run out in transition on those, but like I said before they should look to make the Broncos shoot and beat them from outside. If they start missing shots, the Orange need to grab the defensive rebounds and look to run during those opportunities as well, especially since their opponent only grabs eight offensive rebounds per game, 258th in the country. The Broncos also give up 9.8 offensive rebounds to their opponents, 260th in the nation, and the Orange grab 11.8. They need to look for second chance opportunities and be aggressive on the glass.
The Pick: The big question coming into this game is which Syracuse team will we see? The one from the first 25 games of the season or the one from the last seven? I think this is a good matchup for the Orange to get back on track and it all starts with their defense. They need to be aggressive early and often, they can’t come out slow and let the Broncos stay in the game because they have talented players that can beat them if they are on their game. The Orange need to force turnovers and missed shots and then run, get up and down the court for easy buckets, get Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney some easy looks from three early and jump start the offense. Defense has been their strong point all year and their defense will be their biggest offense. I see the Orange winning this one 75-59 and advancing to the round of 32. If they can find themselves in this game and start playing the way they did at the beginning of the year, I think they could make a run in the tournament.
When: Thursday March 20th, 2:45 p.m. ET
Where: First Niagara Center, Buffalo, New York