When the NCAA Tournament field of 64 has been reduced to eight, typically only power programs from big conferences remain. That’s true again this year, where the Elite Eight includes two teams each from the SEC, the Big 12, and the Big East, and one each from the Big Ten and the ACC.
The Ohio State Buckeyes will hope to carry the Big Ten flag forward when they play tonight against the Big East’s best team, the Syracuse Orange. It will be a battle of two seasoned, highly regarded teams that spent the entire season ranked in the top ten.
Syracuse beat another Big Ten team, Wisconsin, to get to this point. The Badgers almost pulled that game out because they canned 14 three-pointers shooting over the fabled Syracuse zone that Coach Jim Boeheim has perfected. That’s not likely to happen tonight, because Ohio State simply doesn’t have the three-point shooters to take that approach unless William Buford gets hot.
The Buckeyes will be looking to break down the zone in other ways, by trying to get the ball to Deshaun Thomas at the elbow of the lane and have him shoot mid-range jumpers before Syracuse players can rotate over or dish to Jared Sullinger and others if holes in the zone open up. Thomas has been a stud in the Tournament, and the Buckeyes hope his strong showing will continue.
The other key on offense will be rebounding. The Buckeyes have been a good rebounding team, and teams that play zone — Syracuse included — often get outrebounded because they can’t get a body on every offensive player when the ball comes off the glass. Syracuse’s rebounding challenges were compounded when they lost their big man, Fab Melo, for the tournament. Ohio State will need to crash the boards, and that means Sullinger, Thomas, and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. will need to hustle and scrap for put-back buckets on the offensive end.
Syracuse has a lot of long and talented players who can run, shoot, and finish near the rim. They like to play up-tempo and score fast-break points off turnovers. They are led in scoring by forward Kris Joseph and guard Dion Waiters, but the match-up I’ll have my eye on will be Ohio State’s Aaron Craft against Syracus guard Scoop Jardine. Jardine is terrific, and Syracuse counts on him to get the ball to the players who can finish. Craft will be trying to disrupt that and will be playing his tremendous pressure on the ball style to do so. If Craft can get Jardine out of his rhythm and out of his game without getting himself into foul trouble, the Buckeyes will have a chance to move forward.
In the Elite Eight you expect to see tough games between great teams. We’ll see one tonight.