Syracuse shuts downs Indiana at both ends of the floor

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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.

Elite 8 Preview: Sunday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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No. 4 FLORIDA (-3) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 2:20 p.m., CBS: If you’re a fan of uptempo, wide-open basketball, of teams running beautiful offensive sets, spreading the floor and using the three-point line like it should be used, this game probably is not going to be for you.

This is going to be as physical and as tough as any game you watched all season long. Both the Gamecocks and the Gators are top five teams in defensive efficiency, and both of them get out and pressure defensively, Florida in the full court and South Carolina in the half court. They shun shooters for the toughest athletes on their roster. They pride themselves in being tougher, both mentally and physically, than whoever they end up playing.

And they think that a game played in the 50s is beautiful basketball.

So bet the under if you can.

But the pick I like is Florida here. Their ability to defend is going to make it very difficult for South Carolina’s offensive renaissance to continue, and their guards will be able to make the plays offensively that South Carolina dares you to make.

PREDICTION: Florida (-3)

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-2.5) vs. No. 2 KENTUCKY, 5:05 p.m. CBS: This is the rematch we all wanted, right?

Ever since that day three months ago, when Kentucky got 47 points from Malik Monk in a 103-102 win over North Carolina in Las Vegas, I don’t think there is a soul in the country that would have told you otherwise.

There are two major differences between these two teams now and those two teams then. The biggest is the presence of Theo Pinson, North Carolina’s best perimeter defender. Pinson has dealt foot injuries all season long, and when these two got together in December, he was not yet healthy enough to play. I assume that he will draw the assignment of Malik Monk, chasing around the man that had definitively been Kentucky’s most dangerous scorer. Pinson will make life more difficult for Monk than it was the first time around.

But is he going to spend the entire game on him?

Because after De’Aaron Fox’s 39-point outburst against UCLA on Friday night, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Pinson may be better suited to taking on the task of keeping Fox from getting into the paint. Whatever Roy Williams opts to do, the bottom line is pretty simple — if he needs to find a way to keep Kentucky’s back court in check.

The other difference between now and then is that Bam Adebayo has been playing up to his potential for the past six weeks. He was solid earlier in the year. He can be dominant at times now, and that is going to be critical for the Wildcats, who are going to be outsized by a significant margin by UNC’s front line. The Tar Heels lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and they are one of the only elite teams that thrives playing two bigs at the same time. In other words, one of Wenyen Gabriel or Derek Willis are going to have to deal with Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley. That’s a matchup that favors UNC, which is why Aebayo is going to have to play up to his size.

In the end, I think Pinson’s presence and North Carolina’s size advantage will be too much.

But if Fox and Monk play their game, they can carry Kentucky a long, long way.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (2.5)

Lawrence Police Department trolls Bill Self following Elite Eight loss

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Kansas had its season ended with a 74-60 loss to No. 3 seed Oregon.

The Jayhawks were the top seed in the South region. They were playing a de facto at the Sprint Center, which is 40 miles away from the school’s campus. As you can imagine, fans in Lawrence were likely unhappy, especially since it’s the second year in a row KU has been bounced one-game shy of the Final Four.

The Lawrence Police Department, while prepping for potential riots, couldn’t help tweeting a joke at the future Hall of Famer’s expense.

Bill Self’s teams have been eliminated seven times in the Elite Eight during his tenure at Kansas. He’s led the Jayhawks to a pair of Final Fours, winning the national championship in 2008.

Kansas finished the season 31-5.

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.

VIDEO: Tyler Dorsey hits dagger after dagger in upset of Kansas

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Tyler Dorsey is building himself quite the reputation for being a big-shot maker.

He hit the game-winner that got Oregon to the Sweet 16. He hit two threes at the end of the first half to push Oregon’s lead to 11 points over Kansas. And he hit this three, the dagger through the heart of Kansas:

Dorsey finished with 27 points. He’s scored at least 20 points in every game since the NCAA tournament began.

No. 3 Oregon heading to first Final Four in 78 years

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Oregon, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, made what looked to be a smooth path to Phoenix into a bumpy road. But after 78 years, the Ducks are going back to the Final Four, defeating No. 1 Kansas, 74-60, in Elite Eight on Friday night in Kansas City.

Everything went right for the Ducks in the first half. Josh Jackson was called for two fouls in the less than three minutes. The Jayhawks were limited in transition. Tyler Dorsey’s two 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds gave them a double-digit lead at halftime. Oregon stretched it to as many as 18 in the second. Kansas couldn’t buy a basket from three (a far cry from the 3-point barrage it put on Purdue two nights earlier). When the Jayhawks drove to the basket, it was Jordan Bell (11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks) who either blocked or altered their shots.

However, the Ducks not only left the door open for the Jayhawks, they held it open. Kansas’ comeback attempt was a mix drink that was equal parts KU putting the clamps on defensively, Oregon playing a bit of hero ball, and the Ducks playing not to lose instead of to win. Up six with less than two minutes remaining, Dorsey (27 points) buried a dagger 3-pointer that all but sealed the win — and a spot in next week’s Final Four — for the Ducks.

Oregon will play the winner of the South region, which will either be No. 1 North Carolina or No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday.

The slogan of the NCAA Tournament is “The Road to the Final Four”.

Outside of Duke, the runaway preseason favorite, and it’s months-long narrative of “Is Duke back?”, you could make the case there wasn’t a Final Four contender with a journey filled with more ups and downs than Oregon.

Weeks following a season-ending loss to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight, Oregon learned that both Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey would return to school for the next season. In July, Dylan Ennis was granted a sixth-year of eligibility. With Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell returning, and Payton Pritchard joining the program, the Ducks were an easy choice for a preseason Final Four pick.

Brooks’ offseason foot surgery — and the recovery that followed — raised concern about whether or not Oregon could fully reach its preseason potential, entering conference play without a notable win. Brooks’ Pac-12 Player of the Year season put to rest the status of his foot, leading the Ducks to a 16-2 Pac-12 record.

Hours before Oregon was set to battle with Arizona, it was announced that Chris Boucher had torn his ACL and would be out for the remainder of the season. Not only could this have played a role in the team’s seeding by the selection committee, but Boucher offered more than rim protection, as he helped space the floor given his ability to step out and shoot from the perimeter.

After fending off a good fight from Iona, the Ducks looked to be part of a Rhode Island’s magical postseason run. Tyler Dorsey ended that. In the Sweet 16, Oregon was matchup with Michigan, dubbed as the team of destiny. Bell and Dorsey, Oregon’s two tournament stars, stepped up in critical moments once again. Slated as an underdog for the second straight game, Oregon proved its Final Four worth by handing Kansas its worst tournament defeat of the Bill Self era in a regional final game that was played 40 miles away from the KU campus.

“I’m happy for our team,” Oregon head coach Dana Altman said following the game. “I’m happy for, as I mentioned, our university and our state. It’s been a long time coming and now we just need to go continue to play well.”

For Oregon, its road to the Final Four has come full circle.