Can Cal Men's Basketball Take Down Syracuse?

Ezra Shaw

It is perfectly acceptable to dislike Jim Boeheim. From the moment he steps on the court, he begins an incessant campaign of whining and crying to the officials. Inevitably, a few whistles will go his way as the refs become desperate to ward off the cacophony of complaints. This is, of course, in direct contrast to Coach Mike Montgomery who is always a paragon of restraint on the Cal sidelines... Whatever you might think of Coach Boeheim personally, you can't dispute that he has serious coaching acumen. Unless some type of scandal comes to light, his career has already garnered Hall of Fame status. I'm sure drug violations, academic ineligibility issues, and other such shenanigans are just water under the bridge. Despite losing the core from his #1 seeded team last year, he simply reloaded and has Syracuse poised for another run deep into the NCAA's.

The Orange might lack the flashy names and star power from previous years. But, that doesn't make them any less dangerous. Deploying Boeheim's trademark 2-3 zone, this is a top-notch defensive squad with elite athletes. If you have any preconceived notions that playing zone is easier or helps to conserve energy, throw those out the window. Syracuse uses their defense to attack. It is an active, aggressive zone with plenty of trapping on the sidelines and in the corners. Many good teams buy-in to playing tough defense; the Orange _thrive_ on it. They're one of the best shot-blocking teams in the nation and they are quite adept at converting forced turnovers into transition points.

Their offense throughout the year was a bit more inconsistent. For the most part, the numbers say that this isn't a particularly good shooting team. But if you disregard the regular season stats, they were absolutely on fire during the Big East tournament. We can feel highly fortunate to get them while they're riding a hot streak.

If there's one mitigating factor, it's that Syracuse might have some depth issues. They were only able to dress seven scholarship players throughout most of February. Their starting center, Dajuan Coleman, had knee surgery in January. He has subsequently returned to practice, but hasn't seen playing time yet.

Starting swingman James Southerland was also suspended in January for being academically ineligible. Curiously, he has been reinstated just in time for post-season play. Although their graduate programs are notoriously questionable, you would think that their undergraduate academics would require more than two months of good behavior to restore eligibility. I suppose it's a testament to this young man's hard work and perseverance that he was able to complete the requisite number of finger paintings in such a short time. Good thing the NCAA is on the case.

To summarize, CGB's resident Benedict Arnold has the inside scoop.

atomsareenough: "They're a very athletic team, very active zone defense, creates a surprising number of turnovers, and they're usually quite good in transition. If the jump shots are falling for them as well, it'll be a long day."

(I have no idea why Atoms is so negative except for that obvious fact that he hates Cal and is more orange than a 'roided out oompa loompa.)

On short notice, it's always a tough match-up to adjust your offense in order to breakdown a dedicated zone team. But if there's a coach anywhere who can do it, in Monty we trust.

Starters:

F James Southerland, 6'8, 215 lbs, 13.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg
F Rakeem Christmas(So), 6'9, 242 lbs, 5.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg
F C.J. Fair(Jr), 6'8, 215 lbs, 14.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg
G Brandon Triche(Sr), 6'4, 210 lbs, 13.8 ppg, 3.6 apg
G Michael Carter-Williams(So), 6'6, 185 lbs, 12.0 ppg, 7.7 apg

Bench:

C Dajuan Coleman(Fr), 6'9, 275 lbs, 12.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg
F Baye Moussa Keita(Jr), 6'10, 215 lbs, 3.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg
F Jerami Grant(Fr), 6'8, 203 lbs, 4.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg
G Trevor Cooney(Fr), 6'4, 195 lbs, 3.6 ppg,

James Southerland is a bit one-dimensional, but he does that one thing very, very well; he is absolutely money from deep. Which is good for him, because he apparently only knows how to count to three. Rakeem Christmas got plenty of NCAA experience last year filling in for the suspended Fab Melo. He's more of a defender/rebounder for this team. Inside the arc, C.J. Fair is their most versatile and consistent scorer. The Syracuse offense tends to lean heavily on their small forward for production. (See: Johnson, Wesley or Anthony, Carmelo) Veteran Brandon Triche has a solid all-around game. His outside shot is streaky, so he's much more comfortable slashing to the hoop and drawing fouls. Michael Carter-Williams has been touted as having Jason Kidd-like court vision and passing ability. Having seen Jason Kidd, I'll be the first to tell you that he's no Jason Kidd. However, he does have college-era Kidd's shooting ability...which is to say 38% from the field and 28% from deep. He is far more dangerous in the open court or when he gets into the lane. We'll just hope that he uses his 6'6 frame to channel the spirit of Jelani Gardner instead. Keita is another defense/rebounding specialist off the bench. Dajuan Coleman is a former McDonald's All-American with an emphasis on McDonald's. He was a super-sized load inside until his knee injury. It is unknown whether he'll be available to play. Grant offers more defense and athleticism. And, Cooney is their designated reserve gunner who think he shoots it better than he does. (It cannot be confirmed that he is or is not related to Gary Franklin.)


Match-ups:

Cal's Defense vs. the Syracuse Offense:

Similar to UNLV, the Orange are more dangerous in transition than in the half court set. For them, it all starts with using dribble penetration to break down the defense. Fair, Triche, and Carter-Williams all love to get to the line where they each shoot 70+%. Carter-Williams is particularly deadly once he gets in the lane because of his height and passing ability. Normally, you just need to chase Southerland off the three point line, pack it in, and take your chances that the rest of the Orange won't make you pay from the outside. Unfortunately, they've been on a hot streak lately that defies their normal season averages.

I'd expect Monty to stay with the 3-2 zone in order to stop them from getting into the paint, and take his chances that Syracuse won't shoot us out of the gym. Otherwise, it's a tough match-up for the Cal guards to contend with Carter-Williams and Triche's size advantage.

Syracuse likes to run Fair along the baseline with Southerland on the nearby wing. By attacking the Cal bigs and forcing them to cover both a wing shooter and then recover to the baseline, they'll either get a baseline drive or an open outside shot if we're slow on our rotations. Fair is quick enough that if he catches it cleanly, it only takes one dribble before he's dunking it. Our bigs did very well frustrating and shutting down Bennett/Moser. However, Fair is a craftier player and is more explosive than powerful. We also can't count on Boeheim to make the same strategic blunders that UNLV gifted to us.

Keys:

1) It's all about Kravish/Solo/Thurman. They played their hearts out against UNLV. We'll need more of the same to upset the Orange. As it always seems to be the case during the Monty era, we need to tiptoe the fine line between aggressive defense and avoiding foul trouble.

2) Assuming it's zone, our guards need to remember that the one guy they can't ever lose is Southerland. If we go man, it's all about getting back in transition and moving our feet to stop dribble penetration.


Cal's Offense vs. the Syracuse Defense:

Our chances here start and end with ball security. Mentally, we need to be prepared that the Syracuse zone is very aggressive. We have to be disciplined about not picking up the ball in bad spots, and decisive enough to know where to go before the traps start coming. Our offense got out of rhythm against Utah when they employed some unusual traps. Hopefully, the experience was a good teaching point for Monty and the staff. We also have to be aware that Carter-Williams can be a disruptive force with his instincts and 6'6 length. Similar to how OSU's Jared Cunningham used to rack up steals and then head off to the races, Carter-Williams will take advantage if we're too loose with the ball.

Simply swinging the ball around the perimeter won't cut it. We can't abandon our dribble drives and inside touches even if they're only a means to set up our outside game. Our guards have to be aware that backside shot-blocking is almost going to be there. Fortunately, Crabbe and Cobbs are both adept at pulling up and using floaters to score in the mid-range. Getting all the way to the rim (cough, Mr. Wallace, cough) will probably not be there, so look to draw the rotation while our bigs make themselves available.

Keys:

1) By this point, we know what makes our offense go or not. Protect the ball. Don't lose confidence or patience and try to take it by yourself against one of the best zone defenses around. It's obvious that we need to make shots. But it's whether we can work the ball around to get ourselves better shots which could be the difference between a bus-ride home and a flight to the Sweet Sixteen.

A shout out and hat's off to all the dedicated Cal fans who traveled and trekked to HP Pavilion for our Bears. Rehydrate and get ready to bring it again.

Cal was able to knock off UNLV with a combination of solid play and outstanding effort. We can't ask any more than that. Roll on you Bears!

Game Time: Saturday, March 23rd, 6:40pm(PST)
TV: TBS
Radio: 910AM

*Cal Athletics is promoting this game as a Gold Out. San Jose is Bear Territory!

#LightUpSanJose

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