When No. 1 seeded Syracuse survived a near unprecedented loss to UNC Asheville in the first round, the Orange looked equal parts vulnerable and overrated.
Then came the Kansas State game in the round of 32, where the 2-3 matchup zone suddenly wore down a cold shooting Wildcat team, led to fast break run-outs and a 16-point win.
In the Sweet 16 though, Syracuse overcame its toughest test yet. Against a highly efficient, well prepared Wisconsin team that seemingly couldn't miss in the second half after draining six straight 3-pointers, along with a subpar game from its leading scorer Kris Joseph (7 points), the Orange put together its best tournament effort yet.
In this stage of the tournament, the level of play becomes so high that in turn, the room for error dramatically shrinks. Quality possessions become paramount, and so does limiting second chance opportunities. The Badgers are not very athletic or long, but they rebound the ball at a scary rate and lead the country in turnover efficiency. In other words, they don't beat themselves.
From the opening tip, head coach Jim Boeheim's game plan became evident; the Orange were going to eliminate the high post catch and use their overwhelming length to force turnovers and keep Wisconsin off the glass. And, for the most part, it worked. The Badgers collected just 23 rebounds and 8 offensive for the game. In the final six minutes, they failed to convert a single 3-pointer.
Even with a team as talented as Syracuse, losing a centerpiece like a Fab Melo is a crucial blow. As highlighted earlier in the tournament, Melo is the only shot-blocking threat on the roster and a double-digit rebounder. However, such a loss can at least be partially mitigated when C.J. Fair plays like he did Thursday night. Fair, a versatile six-foot-eight forward, was terrific in the half-court, finishing with 15 points on 7-9 shooting. He must remain productive for this team to have a legitimate shot at a national title, because he is the only other big man on this team that can actually score in the paint, and a big reason why Syracuse outscored Wisconsin 30-10 in the paint.
Aside from Fair, the most important player on the Orange is Dion Waiters, the volatile sophomore guard who seems to only make shots when his team needs it the most. An almost unstoppable guard on the perimeter, he came up with numerous clutch buckets in the first half that extended the lead to double-digits. Even though he comes off the bench, Waiters is the one guy Boeheim can turn to when he absolutely needs a bucket. The 'Cuse are far from unbeatable without Melo anchoring the middle, but there may not be a more talented combo-man left in this tournament.
We all know that great guard play often prevails in March.
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