SAN JOSE, Calif. – On Thursday night, Syracuse looked capable of cutting down the nets at the end of this thing, dismantling 13th seed Montana, 81-34. On Saturday against 12th-seeded Cal, those same Orange looked like the reckless, offensively challenged group that lost four of their last five regular-season games. A team so unreliable, my SI colleague Seth Davis regrettably picked them to lose to Montana on national television.
Syracuse did advance to the Sweet 16 with a 66-60 victory here in front of a heavily partisan Cal crowd, but not before doing everything in its power to waste a thoroughly dominant defensive effort. The Orange shot a staggering 41 free throws in the game but made just 63 percent of them. They still managed to lead 58-45 with 2:22 remaining, but let the Bears back in the game thanks in part to a series of turnovers. Up eight with 29 seconds left, forward C.J. Fair threw an inbounds pass from under his own basket that managed to go out of bounds on the opposite side of the floor, giving the ball right back to Cal without a second elapsing. The equally sloppy and cold-shooting Bears cut the deficit to six but couldn’t get closer than that.
“It was not pretty,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said of the final two minutes. “It was about as ugly as I think it can get.”
Had this been a regular-season game, Boeheim might have come to the postgame press conference in a foul mood. He might have been disgusted by the free-throw misses, the turnovers, the rash of poor decisions. But this being the NCAA tournament, and with his team advancing to its fourth Sweet 16 in five seasons, there was no complaining. “When you get in this tournament and you get a tough environment, you just want to get a win,” he said. “I thought our team really dug down deep in a tough, tough environment and won the game.”
With a Sweet 16 date looming Thursday in Washington D.C. -- potentially against East No. 1 seed Indiana -- the question is, which Syracuse edition will suit up? When on their game the Orange are fully capable of defeating the Hoosiers. Boeheim’s 2-3 zone is particularly suffocating this season, ranking 10th nationally in defensive efficiency. On Saturday, as planned, they thoroughly flustered Cal guards Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs, holding them to a combined 5-of-18 shooting, including 2-of-10 from three. The Bears, whose players fully admitted afterward they couldn’t handle Cuse’s zone, finished a miserable 4-of-21 from three.
“Whatever zone it was,” said Cal coach Mike Montgomery, “they knew where Crabbe was at all times.” Said Boeheim: “Our defense was as good as you could ask it to be for a long time tonight. I mean, they weren't getting shots.”
But Boeheim and his players know the offense will need to improve and reduce its mistakes if they hope to advance beyond the next round.
“We had a 12-point lead and we kind of relaxed. We’ve got to close the game out better,” said Fair, who led the Orange with 18 points. “Overall, we’re getting better. Our offense is better. Our defense has been good all year.”
Not yet knowing as of Saturday night who his team would face next, Boeheim -- whose parting comments included an extended monologue about the history of home-court advantage in the tournament (he was clearly thrilled to draw a 12th seed an hour from its campus) – was more concerned about logistics.
“We had a long trip out here,” he said. “I'm more concerned about the travel and the wear. It's tough going 3,000 miles and then going back 3,000, and Tuesday getting on a plane again. It's difficult.” The good news is, it’s also incredibly difficult to get open looks against Syracuse’s defense. That alone makes the Orange a threat going forward. But they also have the nagging ability to self-destruct.