PITTSBURGH — Syracuse was practicing in front of fans and media at the Consol Energy Center on Wednesday afternoon, and as the practice came to an end, a Syracuse fan shouted a message to the Orange’s starting point guard Scoop Jardine.
“Scoop, rally the troops — rally the troops, Scoop,” the fan hollered. “Everyone is doubting us. They’ve got guys like these (pointing to other fans of lower-seeded schools watching the practice) taking us out (of the NCAA tournament).”
Kansas State, an 8 seed, is one of those teams some people have picked to have a chance to upset the top seed in the East Regional. But the Wildcats had to get past Southern Mississippi first, and now that they have, they can focus 100 percent of their attention on Syracuse, which K-State will play on Saturday at 11:15 a.m. (CST) in a game televised on CBS.
“It’s a completely opposite game of what we saw today,” said K-State associate head coach Brad Underwood, who had the assignment of scouting Syracuse. “We’re going to see a big, athletic team. We’re going to see a team that’s exceptionally fast. They don’t get enough credit for how hard they run in transition.
“In Big 12 terms, it’s a Baylor-type game instead of a Missouri-type game. We’ve got to be able to attack their zone, make some shots and make passes to make them guard because they are lethal in transition.”
The Orange play a 2-3 zone defense, and while it’s extremely effective at getting teams to miss shots, it also leaves gaping holes when it comes to defensive rebounding. Syracuse (32-2) ranks 341st out of 345 teams in the country in defensive rebounding, while K-State entered Thursday’s game seventh in the nation in offensive rebounding.
“That’s one thing with the zone. You don’t have a specific (box-out) assignment and we have to exploit that,” Underwood said. “We’ve been very good at doing that, against Baylor, against Missouri, against teams that play zone. We’ve got to continue to take advantage of it. It’s an opportunity to score and it doesn’t have to be out of a set offense. Going to the boards is something we’ve got to make a big part of our offense on Saturday.”
Syracuse will be playing without starting center Fab Melo, who was suspended for the entire NCAA tournament earlier this week. This could prove to be a key loss for Syracuse, as Melo leads the Orange with 5.8 rebounds and 88 blocked shots this season, while scoring 7.8 points with a team-leading 57-percent accuracy from the floor.
Melo, the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, missed three games earlier this season, and the Orange struggled. In those three games, Syracuse averaged just 60 points, 17 points below its per-game average when Melo has played this season. The first game Melo missed came on Jan. 21, a 68-57 loss to Notre Dame, which had an 11-8 record at the time.
The Orange won the other two games Melo missed, a 63-61 victory over West Virginia and a 60-53 win over Cincinnati. But Syracuse was outrebounded 40-21 in the win over the Mountaineers, and in the loss to Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish grabbed 38 rebounds to Syracuse’s 25.
And on Thursday, playing once again without the 7-foot center, Syracuse struggled as it had to use a second-half rally to narrowly defeat No. 16-seed UNC-Asheville 72-65.
“Syracuse is better than Asheville,” UNC-Asheville head coach Eddie Biedenbach said. “But tonight we were better than Syracuse. These guys played their tails off for 40 minutes and played better than Syracuse.”
While Melo only averages 7.8 points, his defense — in particular his ability to block shots — directly leads to offense, and without him on the floor, the Orange have gotten significantly fewer transition baskets.
With all of that said, K-State coach Frank Martin isn’t breathing any easier just because Melo is out.
“Syracuse is awesome,” Martin said. “They’ve won Big-East games without Fab Melo. That team understands how to play with him and without him. Fab becomes an unbelievable presence in a game. But they know what they have to do without him.
“Coach (Jim) Boeheim has won a million-27 games, or whatever it is he’s won. I think he knows what he’s doing. His team will be as prepared as any team in the country.”
The Orange rank 24th in the country in scoring defense, limiting teams to 60.4 points per game while ranking 12th in field-goal percentage defense, holding opponents to just 38.5 percent from the floor. And because of their length on the perimeter, they protect the 3-point line, as teams have shot just 30.6 percent from 3 against them this season.
So while the Wildcats will need to hit shots from the perimeter, they’d also be well-served to attack the middle of the zone inside if they hope to pull off the upset.
“It’s a matter of where you get the ball in order to get perimeter shots,” Underwood said. “We’ve got to be able to attack through the high post, get it to the low post as well and get on the offensive glass. We can’t just rely on shooting 30 3s. That won’t do it.”
Syracuse opened as a 5 to 5 1/2-point favorite according to Vegas oddsmakers.
No. 8 KANSAS STATE (22-10)
Yr. Ht. Ppg. Rpg.
G - Angel Rodriguez Fr. 5-11 8.2 2.4
G - Will Spradling So. 6-2 9.3 2.1
G - Rodney McGruder Jr. 6-4 15.9 5.3
F - Jamar Samuels Sr. 6-7 10.0 6.6
F - Jordan Henriquez Jr. 6-11 7.4 5.4
No. 1 SYRACUSE (32-2)
Yr. Ht. Ppg. Rpg.
G - Scoop Jardine Sr. 6-2 8.4 2.3
G - Brandon Triche Jr. 6-4 9.3 2.5
F - C.J. Fair So. 6-8 8.5 5.4
F - Kris Joseph Sr. 6-7 13.8 5.0
F - Rakeem Christmas Fr. 6-9 2.6 2.8