It won't be easy for Butler to take down a Syracuse, with or without Arinze Onuaku. Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens knows that, and he knows his squad will need to play a near-perfect game to advance to the Elite Eight. Butler's chances could hinge on long range shooters Shelvin Mack and Willie Veasley finding their mark early and often to soften the vaunted Orange zone. Tip for this West Regional is Thursday at 7:07 p.m. (ET) on CBS.
The Big East has been taken to the woodshed at this year’s NCAA men’s basketball Tournament. But that probably doesn’t concern the Syracuse Orange very much.
This is not your typical at-large team: Syracuse is the No. 1 seed in the West Regional, and a six-point favorite to advance to the Elite Eight Thursday night (7:07 p.m. ET, CBS) at the expense of the No. 5 Butler Bulldogs.
Sharp handicappers like nothing more than fading a team such as No. 4 Vanderbilt or No. 6 Notre Dame in the early rounds of March Madness. These are potentially soft opponents for the champions of lower conferences – like the Bulldogs themselves. But Syracuse is no softie.
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The Orange (30-4 SU, 21-9 ATS) is one of the very best Division I teams at both ends of the floor, fourth overall in efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy. Butler (30-4 SU, 14-20 ATS) sits at No. 17 after playing a much lighter schedule in the Horizon League.
Syracuse blazed through the first two rounds of the Tournament at 2-0 ATS without center Arinze Onuaku (10.5 points, 5.1 rebounds per game), who hurt his left knee/quad in the Big East quarterfinal loss to Georgetown. Onuaku’s status for Thursday was uncertain at press time. The Orange remain dangerous in the middle with Rick Jackson (9.9 points, 7.0 rebounds per game) anchoring the 2-3 zone defense. But Syracuse will have more value against the betting odds if Onuaku can provide his usual 20-plus minutes of quality basketball.
Breaking that famous Syracuse zone usually requires a hot shooting team from the perimeter. The Orange have yet to draw such a team at the Big Dance.
Vermont 31.7 percent (No. 271 overall)
Gonzaga 35.5 percent (No. 113)
Butler 34.6 percent (No. 147)
The Bulldogs have used strong defense (No, 10 in efficiency) to mask their relatively poor shooting, but that was barely enough to get into the Sweet Sixteen. Butler shot just 18-of-50 against No. 13 Murray State (+4) in the second round, holding on to dear life for a 54-52 victory against the Ohio Valley champions. It took 16 turnovers by the Pacers to keep Butler in this matchup. Otherwise, the Bulldogs were 7-of-20 from downtown and were beaten 11-6 on the offensive glass.
“I’m still trying to figure out how we won,” head coach Brad Stevens told the Indianapolis Star after the game.
Generating turnovers isn’t easy to do on a regular basis; however, there are two glaring weaknesses that could still do in the Orange, and butterfingers are one of them.
Andy Rautins (25.0 percent turnover rate) and Brandon Triche (25.5 percent) cough up the ball more frequently than anyone in the Butler lineup, and Syracuse is one of the worst teams in Division I at preventing steals (11.7 percent against). The Bulldogs desperately need those extra possessions.
The other issue with Syracuse is at the free-throw line. For a team of noted shooters, the Orange have no punch at 67.6 percent, or No. 218 in Division I. They were crushed at the line in losses to Georgetown and Pittsburgh, two of the roughest and toughest in the Big East. Butler can play that role; the Bulldogs rank No. 15 in the country with 25.4 percent of their points coming from the charity stripe.
If you want to paint a doomsday scenario for the Orange, that’s pretty much all you need. There’s a very good chance Onuaku doesn’t play Thursday; coach Jim Boeheim has been busy working with freshman DaShonte Riley to get him up to speed as Jackson’s backup. Should Jackson get into foul trouble against Butler, Riley will have to soak up a lot of minutes in relief. He committed three turnovers against Gonzaga in 15 minutes of action. It’s a realistic enough scenario to make Orange supporters cross their fingers for Onuaku’s return.