WASHINGTON, D.C. — Syracuse was not supposed to be in the Elite Eight. Not with No. 1-seed Indiana, not on a court in which they were blown out by 22 points less than a month ago. But thanks to a career-high 24 points from Michael Carter-Williams, the Syracuse Orange advanced to the Elite Eight with a 61-50 win over the Hoosiers on Thursday night.
Syracuse’s patented 2-3 zone gave the Hoosiers fits, as Indiana finished just 16-for-48 from the field and 3-for-15 from beyond the arc. Heading into the contest the key match-up top watch for was how Indiana would combat Syracuse’s length on the perimeter, both offensively and defensively. It took less than 20 minutes to figure out that Indiana didn’t have many answers on either end of the court. By the end of the game, Yogi Ferrell failed to score any points, had just one assist and committed four turnovers. Jordan Hulls didn’t fare much better. He too finished with zero points, but dished out three assists to just two turnovers.
But Indiana’s struggles were not exactly their fault. Much of their demise can be credited to the play of Syracuse, who as a team finished with 10 blocks and 12 steals.
The way to beat a 2-3 zone is by inserting the ball into the high-post, then either a quick pass to the wing or down to the low block. Syracuse’s length forced Indiana to make inaccurate entry passes, and the Orange’s size down low was too much for Cody Zeller to deal with. This was one of the few times all season where he looked vulnerable. He struggled with high-percentage shots and had difficulty going up strong against the big Syracuse front line.
Jim Boeheim was extremely pleased with the way his role-players were able to stymie the Hoosiers’ frontcourt. “I thought Baye (Moussa-Keita) was tremendous and (Jerami) Grant made an unbelievable block. He gave us a plus 8 in 10 minutes he had an unbelievable block on Sheehey, those are the contributions that you have to have and he gave them to us tonight.”
From the opening tip Indiana looked tentative against the length Syracuse had on defense. “They were just long and active. We just didn’t take care of the ball like we should have,” said Victor Oladipo, who finished with a team-high 16 points. “In the first half we got a little too anxious, catching the ball, moving out the ball, not having the ball secure in our hands, and our shots weren’t falling at the same time.”
Syracuse made Indiana feel uncomfortable all night long. The Hoosiers struggled to handle the ball, we’re hesitant to finish strong around the basket and became gun-shy once they realized their shots weren’t falling.
Syracuse’s James Southerland knew Indiana would have issues with their zone. “At first they looked confused, slowing the ball down seeing what they could get. We just do the a good job of talking out there and recovering if they get penetration, but it’s tough. One thing they don’t see is how long we are until they approach our zone.”
But it wasn’t just the Orange’s length on defense that gave Indiana trouble. The Orange ran their fast break to perfection, and used their size advantage on offense. The length and size of Syracuse’s guards made it difficult for Indiana to match-up defensively. Jordy Hull, at 6-foot-1, was not athletic enough to guard Brandon Triche, who at 6-foot-4, was the smallest player for the Orange on Thursday. “We felt like we had an advantage size wise finishing at the rim and that’s what we did,” said Triche, who finished with 14 points on 6-for-12 shooting.
Much of the Orange’s offensive game plan was focused on isolating Victor Oladipo and having the off-ball players go to the basket. When Oladipo guarded Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche exploited the defense. When he covered Triche, Carter-Williams did the same.
“Victor is a very good defender and through the first half he was pretty much guarding James, so Mike had a field day against the basket and I also contributed a few points,” said Triche. “Once he started guarding Mike, I felt like I had an advantage and once he got off Mike know, I felt like he had an advantage shooting but he also scored points on him well. We just did a great job getting into the lane and getting them in foul trouble.”
Carter-Williams had his best game in an Orange uniform, scoring a career-high 24 points and added five steals and four rebounds. The 6-foot-6 guard was too much for the undersized Indiana defense to handle.
Boeheim knew that Carter-Williams would be the difference-maker on offense, and was more than pleased with the result. “This was the best he’s played all year. He was tremendous tonight, he was the difference in the game on offense, clearly.”
With the win, the Orange are just one game away from a spot in the Final Four. But they will have to defeat a Marquette team that exposed the Orange’s zone early in the year en route to a 74-71 victory. The No. 3-seed Golden Eagles will face off against the No. 4-seed Orange on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. at the Verizon Center in the East Regional Finals.
You can contact Troy Machir on Twitter at @TroyMachir.