The teams that were supposed to make it to the final game at the TD Garden in Boston have done so. No. 2 seed Ohio State (30-7) will take on No. 1 seed Syracuse (34-2) out of the Big East tonight at 7:05, with the winner advancing to the Final Four. The Buckeyes haven’t been there since 2007, and it will be interesting to see if this year’s inconsistent squad can finally put together a complete game during March Madness. They’ll need all hands on deck against a very tough Syracuse team—even without Fab Melo. That means William Buford must do more than play defense. He entered this March averaging more than 14 points per game in NCAA tournament games, but thus far has yet to fire on all cylinders. At least he’s playing great defense.
Syracuse advanced to this point by squeaking past No. 16 seed UNC-Asheville, 72-65 in the round of 64, in a game many found riddled with questionable officiating decisions, especially late in the contest. The Orange then proceeded to demolish Kansas State, the East bracket’s No. 8 seed, 75-59. On Thursday night, Syracuse again squeezed by, topping No. 4 seed Wisconsin 64-63, due in large part to what may have been the worst final possession in college basketball history by the Badgers. Seriously, I know Jordan Taylor is the guy you want with the ball late, but you don’t pass up an easy 2-on-1 opportunity down low to give it back to him with the clock winding down and your team behind by one point.
Just about anyone on Syracuse can score in double figures on any given night. The Orange are 34-2 for a reason, folks. However, senior guard Scoop Jardine (#11) is the driving force behind Syracuse’s success. Jardine has stepped up his scoring and his overall game in the tourney. He has the ability to get to the rim, knock down a big shot, or set up a teammate with an open look. Ohio State can’t get caught ball watching when Jardine is running the offense. Senior forward Kris Joseph (#32) is averaging double figures in the tourney, and may cause matchup problems for Ohio State because of his size. Sophomore forward C.J. Fair (#5) found his scoring touch against Wisconsin, scoring 15 with seven rebounds.
Joining the 6-7 Joseph and 6-8 Fair in the front court is 6-9 freshman Rakeem Christmas (#25). We’d like to make it a blue Christmas this year. (Thank you, we’ll be here all week. Try the veal and be sure to tip your waitress.) It looks like Buford will be on Joseph and Thomas on Fair, with Sully guarding the low-scoring Christmas. Junior guard Brandon Tiche (#24) rounds out the starting lineup. He had a tournament high 11 against Wisconsin in the 1-point win.
Scoop Jardine gets all the headlines, and rightfully so, but sophomore guard Dion Waiters (#3) is averaging a team high 14.3 points per game in the tourney off the bench. Syracuse also has the kind of defensive length that has bothered Ohio State at times in the past. James Southerland (#43), a 6-8 junior forward had 15 points against both UNC-Asheville and Kansas State. The final piece in the eight-man Syracuse rotation is 6-10 sophomore center Baye Keita (#12). Keita hasn’t scored much in the tourney, but can eat up minutes, offer up his five fouls, and gobble up rebounds.
You’re going to see a ton of zone defense from the Orange. They’ll play eight guys and Jim Boeheim will ride the hot hand. Four of the team’s starters have reached double figures at least once in the tournament, as well as two of the three bench players used. With all that height and so many players with long reach, it’s no wonder the Orange’s zone defense is difficult to deal with. It’s hard to complete passes over the top, penetration leads most guards and forwards into taller players, and turnovers can happen if the penetrating players don’t distribute the basketball in a timely fashion. This will be Ohio State’s toughest opponent of the season and it will be interesting to see how the Buckeyes respond.
Ohio State wins if: Aaron Craft can limit Jardine’s effectiveness with another outstanding defensive effort, and if the Buckeyes can find offense against the Syracuse defense. The OSU guards have to break down the zone and find the open player, and that man must knock down the outside shot. Sully and Tank will also have to work hard to break down the zone from within, as they did against Cincinnati. Jardine will likely score his 13.7 point tournament average, so the Buckeyes must keep a second, and especially a third, Orange player from doing a lot of damage. Syracuse has gotten double figures multiple times in the tourney from Kris Joseph, James Southerland and Waiters. Additionally, in my estimation, the Buckeyes will need William Buford’s scoring in this game.
Syracuse wins if: they find multiple hot shooters and block some shots early to put doubt into the Buckeyes’ minds. Guards are especially vulnerable to passing up open shots or at least hesitating if they get a couple shots swatted early. The Orange are also in great shape if they stay in shape—in their zone defense, that is. Syracuse is a good defensive club and if they hold Ohio State under 65, they have an excellent chance of advancing to the Final Four.
Notes: CBS has the game, and your on-air harassment will come from Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery…Ohio State is 4-1 all-time against Syracuse, with the last two meetings coming on neutral floors…The most recent meeting was a 79-76 OSU win in the 2007 preseason NIT…The Buckeyes and Orange met in the second round of the 1983 NCAA tournament, with Ohio State winning 79-74 in Hartford…Ohio State holds a 70-49 all-time mark against the schools currently in the Big East…Craft’s needs six steals to reach 100 on the season. He already holds the school’s single-season mark with his 94 this year, and his two-year total of 167 already places him third on the OSU career list…Buford is 32 points behind Jerry Lucas for third on the school’s career scoring list. We don’t expect him to get there in this game, but if he did it would sure improve Ohio State’s chances of reaching the Final Four.