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NCAA Recap: Syracuse - Michigan & Final Four Thoughts

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In my 31 years on this Earth, I've had the privilege to attend two Final Fours. The first was in 2003 when I traveled to New Orleans as a member of the Sour Sitrus Society. That ended quite well. I thought for sure that Syracuse would make it back to New Orleans last year, but the Fab Melo suspension and the stunning officiating in the Elite Eight game against Ohio State prevented a sort of homecoming to the Big Easy. A month ago, when Syracuse lost to Louisville in the Big East Championship, I was certainly feeling a lot better about how Syracuse was playing, but still just didn't see a deep NCAA Tournament run. But this team, this 2013 iteration of the Syracuse Orange, decided to play some of its best ball of the season in late March. So when it earned the Final Four berth by winning the East Regional in Washington, I immediately went into planning mode; there was no way I was letting a Final Four trip pass me by!

Due to scheduling and prior commitments, Brian wasn't able to make it to Atlanta until Sunday, while I was able to fly down on Friday. This was my first time in Atlanta, and I was anxious to escape the cold, dreary weather of upstate New York. Friday was spent taking in some good eats and drinks away from downtown Atlanta with my good friends Cory and Adrienne, who were amazing hosts and earned themselves a shout-out on the blog. Saturday, though, was when we would really start to take in all of the Final Four festivities Atlanta had to offer. We made our way down to Centennial Olympic Park, which I would consider to be almost the centerpiece of the events of the weekend. Free concerts were offered there all weekend, with food, drink, and portable bathrooms all available. Definitely a music festival atmosphere. That afternoon, we arrived as Macklemore was performing. We caught that show, along with Ludacris shortly thereafter. I would have liked to stay for Flo Rida after that, but I had already gotten quite a bit of sun (as you can see in the above picture), and we needed to start the pregame meet-ups & imbibing at the Official Syracuse Pregame site, Hudson Grille. Luckily, this was essentially right outside one of the entrances of the Park; unfortunately, Hudson Grille was probably 500 people over capacity at that point. No matter; they crammed as many people inside and out on their front patio as could tolerate standing in tight quarters.

A round or two of beers (or, just killing the 12-pack I had to buy at the bar), and it was time to make our way into the Georgia Dome to catch the warm up: Louisville vs. Wichita State. My semifinal tickets were submitted to a site, where I simply had to swipe my credit card at the game and it printed out mini-tickets, really seat vouchers. Scary the first time you use it, because you don't want to be scammed, but it ended up being really convenient and we didn't have to worry about losing or forgetting the tickets. We made our way to our seats in Section 301, which ended up giving us a nice corner view of the court. And it struck me just how gigantic that Dome is. The Carrier Dome is tiny in comparison. This one rises much higher, and seats tens of thousands more.

For a "warm-up game" or the less desirable of the two semifinals, Louisville-Wichita State was a great game. The Shockers were in it to win it, and the entire Georgia Dome was cheering for them, save those clad in red. But as the Cardinals came back in the second half, and eventually gained the lead, those dressed in red really came alive and got LOUD! It was a good, exciting game to watch, and really got me pumped for the main event.

Syracuse - Michigan
The storylines coming into this game were: Jim Boeheim has never lost a national semifinal; John Beilein has never beaten Jim Boeheim; the Syracuse 2-3 zone has been suffocating high powered offenses; Trey Burke is pretty damn good. But once the tip goes up, none of that matters. The game is determined by what happens on that court during those 40 minutes. And what happened during those 40 minutes is that the Syracuse offense regressed back almost to what it was at the end of the regular season, when it was all gloom & doom. The defense kept the Orange in the game, but in the end, Syracuse had just dug itself too deep of a hole to climb out of, allowing Michigan to win 61-56.

  • For Syracuse, this game belonged to CJ Fair. But for CJ, Syracuse is not in any sort of conversation to even have a chance to win in the last 90 seconds. But as it was, CJ scored a game-high 22 points on 9-20 shooting, 1-3 from three, six rebounds, a block, and a steal in 37 minutes. Not only was he the consistent CJ Fair we had seen all season, but he went above and beyond defensively. He got a lot of good looks, and that soft touch he has with the jumper or floater just makes you feel really good about his game play.
  • Brandon Triche was such an enigma in this game. He'd have a good stretch or moments of greatness, but then other times just totally disappear or toss up a horrible shot or cough up a turnover. His final line: 11 points on 4-9 shooting, 0-2 from three, three rebounds, eight assists, and two turnovers in 39 minutes before fouling out to end his career at Syracuse. More on the fouls in a bit.
  • Michael Carter-Williams was virtually a statistical ghost. Two points, five rebounds, two assists. Those are not point guard numbers. You look at CJ putting up all those points, but then you realize that he created his own scoring plays. MCW also fouled out after logging 35 minutes.
  • James Southerland also mightily struggled offensively. That's probably an awful grammatical sentence, but it fits with James's contribution. Five points on 2-9 shooting, 1-5 from three. On the up side, he had the offensive highlight of the game for the Orange with that monster dunk. So, at least we have that.
  • Christmas, Keita, Grant, and Cooney all saw some minutes, but nobody was really able to step up and take over the game. And that really cost Syracuse.
  • People will debate for a long time how Boeheim handled the final minute of play, particularly faced with ultimately having both his starting guards foul out and having to rely on putting the ball in Trevor Cooney's inexperienced hands. Should Boeheim have called a timeout and drawn up a play before Brandon fouled out? If that final play was designed to get Southerland a look for a three point shot, should more have been done to get him open before Trevor drove to the basket? Fact is, it happened how it happened, and we fans have to live with it; I'm sure the final outcome hurt the players whose sweat was on that court a lot more than it hurt us watching in the stands or on TV.
  • By and large, the zone did its job. The prolific Wolverine offense was held to 61 points, and faced the same struggles that most teams face against the zone. Their shooters did a great job of extending the zone, opening up room in the middle, but those outside and middle shots are still tough shots to hit. Michigan shot only 39.6% from the field, and 33.3% from three.
  • Syracuse shot 41.8% from the field, but only 21.4% from three. That, my friends, is probably the game changer. Hit a few more of those shots, and Syracuse is fighting to hold onto the lead at the end, instead of fighting to get it.
  • From my seat in 301, I didn't think the officiating was horrible. There are always going to be some questionable calls, but nothing I saw from way up there made me think that the refs altered the outcome of the game. A few days ago I rewatched the game on my DVR, and I still feel that way. They missed a few calls, and had a part in Brandon & MCW fouling out, but it wasn't so atrocious that we should be up in arms as a fan base. More simply put, it was not Syracuse vs. Ohio State in the Elite Eight last year. Syracuse was in this game -- a 3-pointer away from tying it when a timeout was taken with 15 seconds left -- so you can put the loss on Syracuse's lack of execution, not on a call that should have gone Syracuse's way.
Not in recent memory do I recall being so nervous during the last part of a game. My heart was pounding out of my chest, my extremities were shaking, and I had to take deep breaths just to hold it together. This missed jumper by Cooney with nine seconds to go sent it all crashing down, and I almost had no choice but to stand there in disbelief, trying to gather all of my emotions and come to terms with the fact that Syracuse had lost, and the season was over.

It was bittersweet, for sure. We almost felt like Syracuse deserved to be in the Championship game, after the turnaround the team had made during the Big East Tournament. We wanted to see a fourth meeting between Syracuse and Louisville. We wanted to see an all-Big East Championship. In that moment as the final horn sounded, the disappointment clearly overshadowed the great accomplishment it was for this team to make it all the way to the Final Four. Perspective and timing are weird like that.

The rest of Final Four weekend
Brian flew in at noon on Sunday. After lunch and a few rounds of mimosas, we made our way back to Centennial Olympic Park for more free music. Bigger names this time: Sting, followed by Dave Matthews Band. Personally, I think neither disappointed, and it was a great atmosphere to be in at that time. I have to give the NCAA and Atlanta a lot of credit for putting on these concerts at the Park all weekend.

We all had tickets for Monday's Championship game, and while we debated whether or not to sell them, we ultimately decided to go to the game, as fans with no real rooting interest (other than wanting to see a Big East team win). Well, maybe Brian had some money at stake if he won a bracket (entertainment purposes only). We sat in Section 215, which was much lower than the 300 level. We had an extra ticket, which we sold to a Louisville alum. He was actually a pleasure to sit next to; he was really into the game, knew what he was talking about, taught us Cardinals cheers, and we were genuinely excited for him once the game started going Louisville's way. Aside from that, what a phenomenal game to watch in person! Championship or not, that was just a great basketball game. Maybe we could have gotten $300+ each for our tickets, but I'm glad we got to experience that in person.

After the game, a bunch of us were out at Taco Mac, and struck up conversation with a woman who works in the hotel that housed the Syracuse team. She described how the entire staff adopted Syracuse as their team (yeah, financial reasons, but still) and how great the fans and players were before Saturday's game. But that all changed after the game. Syracuse fans went from happy-go-lucky to sore losers, complaining about everything, miserable to be around. And I believed every word she spoke. Because I've seen it too. Blame the refs, blame Boeheim, blame the players. Maybe it goes back to that perspective thing I mentioned earlier. But you know, let's say Syracuse had beaten Michigan and had beaten Louisville for the championship; all we'd hear out in Atlanta is "Let's Go Orange" and the obscene lyrics to the Hey Song. Louisville, on the other hand, had some good cheers going after the game. They were just genuinely happy to have won.

This post is dragging on, and I don't want to get too preachy. But Syracuse, let's try to be more appreciative for what this team gives us. It's okay to be disappointed that we didn't get to see the Orange play for the National Championship; but they made it farther than everyone except three other teams in the country. The team we root for, day in and day out, that brings us so much joy, so much pride, so much emotion, put together an amazing run through March and made it to a place just a month ago nobody could have realistically predicted they'd be. That should be our lasting memory of this team, of this season.

Atlanta, this was my first time, and it was good. I think some of your bars really underestimated how slammed they'd be all weekend, and could have had more staff on hand, better crowd control, a better inventory on hand. But all in all, no serious complaints. I mean, you handled the Olympics 17 years ago, and there was a tragic bombing there, so this was no big deal for you. We were blessed with fantastic weather all weekend, and no major issues with crime or violence in connection with the Final Four. Good host city, maybe we Syracuse fans will see you again!

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Michigan - Syracuse Final Four Preview

Syracuse students agree: A lot of us drove down not to see a loss.
Well this is a very big game indeed. The biggest basketball game for Syracuse in ten years. There have been a few hundred games since we witnessed Syracuse and Carmelo Anthony take on Texas and come away victorious. Since then, no dunk has equaled the Texas T-bag. And now Syracuse has the chance to make a few more legendary moments. They will have to do that against the Wolverines of Michigan. Michigan boasts one of the best players in the game right now in Trey Burke (18.8ppg) who was the hero for Michigan to send their game against Kansas to overtime, which they ended up winning. Syracuse, meanwhile, has gotten contributions from all the players on their roster to survive and advance. Some nights it was Brandon Triche, then Michael Carter-Williams, or James Southerland, or CJ Fair. What we do know for sure is that Michigan has a very good offense, and Syracuse has a very good defense. And then are going to collide. And one will give a little more than the other. Strangely, this scouting report will look familiar. I'm going to be  saying a lot of the same things I said against Indiana. Syracuse is a longer, more athletic team that will surely bother Michigan, like Indiana. Both play in the Big Ten and don't see teams play this type of zone and definitely not for the whole game. Syracuse's guards at the top of the zone are bigger than their Michigan counterparts, like they were bigger than Indiana's guards. Michigan also has a tall, white guy that plays in the post like Indiana. Michigan is a team that does not turn the ball over much. If Syracuse manages to create some turnovers and get some easy buckets at the other end, Michigan will have to work so much harder to stay in the game than just running offense against the SU defense. While Michigan has really shot well in the tournament, when betting on an offensive versus defensive matchup, you should always go with defense. Defense wins Championships. You can't bet on college kids continuing to shoot lights out. Also, Coach Beilein couldn't beat Jim Boeheim when he coached at West Virginia. Why should he think he can do it now? I think this game will be tighter than the Indiana game, but I do like Syracuse in this matchup. I'm taking the Orange by nine. This game will be on at approximately 8:48pm ET on CBS after the conclusion of Wichita State versus Louisville. John is down in Atlanta. I'll be joining him Sunday win or lose. So stay tuned here and on Twitter for everything Final Four related. And also enjoy a tasty appetizer of Syracuse Lacrosse at Princeton on ESPN U before the game at 5:00pm.

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NCAA Recap: Indiana & Marquette

This looks beautiful, especially at the Verizon Center!

Sorry, guys. I know we're a full week after the Indiana game, and five says since the Marquette game. Travelling back from Washington, Easter festivities, catching up from last week, and preparing to be gone for the Final Four have left little time to recap the games. But, since this has to be documented, and since I was there at the Verizon Center for the crazy shenanigans, I owe it to the loyal readers of this blog to share my thoughts. So, enjoy:

All of the pregame hype was all about Keith Smart and 1987. But that was 26 years ago, not now. Now, Syracuse had to deal with one of the best offensive teams in college basketball this season. That's what I had on my mind as I entered by seat in section 419 in the Verizon Center. That Hoosier offense never really showed up. Probably because the Syracuse defense did. The vaunted Syracuse 2-3 zone has received a lot of attention this tournament (much as it did in 2003), but it was especially so after the Indiana game. The Orange was constantly forcing turnovers, running the floor, and scoring. It was the perfect recipe that led to a Syracuse win over Indiana, 61-50.

  • Michael. Carter. -Williams. He picked a pretty big stage to have the game of his life. 24 points on 9-19 shooting, 3-6 from three, five rebounds, four steals.
  • Obviously the big stat there was 24 points. He only had one assist. So, as the point guard, he was seeing something that he liked, something that he had to exploit. That, of course, was the great height advantage he and Brandon Triche had on the Hoosier guards. With the Syracuse forwards spreading out the Indiana defense, lanes opened up for MCW & Triche to drive the lane or even shoot over the guards.
  • Brandon had a great game as well, with 14 points on 6-12 shooting, with four rebounds. He did have six turnovers, but when your backcourt gives you 38 points, you tend to forgive some things.
  • CJ Fair was CJ Fair. Again. I literally should just copy and paste my comments about CJ from game to game, make the occasional stat change as necessary. This one was eleven points on 4-10 shooting, nine rebounds, two blocks, and two steals.
  • MCW, Triche, and Fair all played 38 minutes.
  • Rakeem Christmas didn't contribute much in his nine minutes, though his height and length had Indiana scratching their heads in the middle of the zone.
  • The rest of those center minutes went to Baye Moussa Keita, who went 3-4 from the line, grabbed three rebounds, blocked two shots and had two steals.
  • Syracuse had 13 points off turnovers, and 30 points in the paint.
  • Both teams got off to a slow start offensively, but once the Orange took the lead 4-3 with a fastbreak Brandon Triche dunk at 16:18 in the first half, they never looked back and never relinquished the lead. Impressive.
As we got to see Marquette overpower Miami in the game prior to ours, we knew we'd be seeing the Golden Eagles again. And the talked turned to "Well, they've seen the Syracuse zone and beat it a month ago."

After beating the #1 seed Indiana, Marquette didn't scare me quite so much. Granted, Marquette had beat Syracuse on February 25, but that was in the midst of the bad stretch for the Orange. And, Marquette had just done a number of Miami. But I entered this game thinking that Syracuse now had some serious confidence, and all they had to do is go out there, shoot well, and hope their defense could shut down the Marquette shooters. That's basically what Syracuse was able to do. Syracuse dominated a very good Golden Eagles team and made them look like Syracuse looked at the Verizon Center only three weeks earlier. Syracuse beats Marquette 55-39 to win the East Regional and advance to the Final Four in Atlanta.
  • James Southerland carried the torch for the Orange offense, scoring 16 points on 6-13 shooting, 3-9 from three. He also contributed three rebounds and a block.
  • CJ Fair? See above. Otherwise, it was 13 points on 5-11 shooting, six rebounds, two blocks, and three steals.
  • Michael Carter-Williams had another solid game with 12 points (4-9 and 1-1 from three), eight rebounds, six assists, and five steals. Certainly a much more balanced approach than what he gave on Thursday, but both games were key for him.
  • The emerging outstanding play of MCW I think has really inspired this team. As Jim Boeheim has noted recently, MCW has played great all season; we've seen the scoring slumps and the turnovers, but overall, Coach is right. But the fact we're not seeing the slumps or the turnovers like we had, just make it look like he's playing so much better. Can't argue with stats.
  • But if anything else, it's probably the play of Brandon Triche that's really helping put Syracuse over the top. Against Marquette, Brandon scored nine points, with six rebounds and three assists. He didn't have a great shooting game (maybe spent a bit too much against Indiana?) but he's out there playing with confidence he hasn't had all season. He's a senior leader, so for him to play with that confidence is huge for the team.
  • Rakeem Christmas stepped up and contributed a lot more in this game, much to the pleasure of Jimmy Fallon and Orange fans everywhere. He hit some clutch free throws and played good defense in splitting time with Baye Moussa Keita.
  • Syracuse had six turnovers. Only six. Chew on that.
  • Those six turnovers led to a whopping zero points for Marquette. However, the 14 turnovers of Marquette led to 19 Orange points. Thank you, zone. Fastbreak points favored Syracuse 8-0, too.
  • Syracuse led in points in the paint 26-16.
Though Syracuse got off to a very slow start in the second half (I remember standing and clapping for what seemed like forever), the Orange kept the lead. The lead was never in doubt, but with the lead hovering between nine and eleven points, you never really felt like the game had been put away until late in the game. For me, I think it was just under two minutes to go when Brandon hit two free throws to put Syracuse up by 16, and then an MCW three at 34 seconds to really just seal the deal. From there, you'd never know you were in the arena where Georgetown plays its home games. How sweet a feeling it was for Syracuse to raise a trophy on that floor and cut down those nets! Supposedly Syracuse lost to Georgetown twice in the regular season, but I don't even remember that anymore. Ancient history as far as I'm concerned.

And so by winning the East Regional, Syracuse earns a berth in the Final Four, the National Semifinal against South Regional Champion Michigan. Orange::44 has made arrangements (i.e. spent a lot of money) to be in Atlanta to cover the weekend's festivities, games, and hopefully celebrations. It's been ten years since Syracuse made it this far in the bracket, so we have to take advantage of these opportunities. It sounds like a lot of Orange fans will also be making their way to Atlanta, so if you see Brian or I please come say hi! Brian will be bringing you the preview for the game against the Wolverines on Saturday, so check back for that.

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