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Gonzaga May Be One to Solve Syracuse

Mar 20, 2010 – 9:00 PM
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David Steele

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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The notion that Syracuse could suffer a repeat of the humiliation served on it by Vermont five years earlier was dismissed within the first few minutes of their first-round NCAA tournament rematch Friday night. It was entertaining and made for good conversation in the week leading up to the game.

But that's over -- and now, there's real trouble on the horizon for the top-seeded Orange. Next up, in Sunday's West Region second-round game at HSBC Arena, is a legitimate Cinderella, so legitimate that it's now unfair at best and an insult at worst to call Gonzaga a Cinderella team.

As proof, the reason Syracuse (29-4) should be deeply concerned has little to do with Gonzaga's history of toppling giants (this is their 12th straight NCAA berth, and they've beaten higher seeds seven times and reached the Sweet 16 five times in that span). It doesn't even have a lot to do with the certain absence of Syracuse forward Arinze Onuaku, who missed the first-round win with a strained quad. "He has not practiced. I'd never play someone who hasn't practiced,'' coach Jim Boeheim said Saturday.

Gonzaga (27-6), seeded eighth and 67-60 winners over Florida State on Friday, can beat Syracuse because it just might be the better team, regardless of seed, national rank and conference affiliation.

And since conference affiliation was such a hot topic Saturday, Gonzaga coach Mark Few should be heard: "I think everybody gets way too into the sweeping generalizations with leagues and affiliations and whether you have football at your school or not. You guys probably all need to look at the teams and say, 'OK, there's a really good program, there's a really good team.' I think we all want to group everything into BCS or non-BCS or whatever. You should probably look at the basketball teams.''

Gonzaga then is a really good team -- good enough to play a Florida State team that had height and quickness all over the floor and as good a reputation for defense (in a power conference like the ACC) as anyone in the country -- and hit 52 percent of its shots against it, built an 18-point lead and got the Seminoles' best two big men, 7-foot Solomon Alabi and 6-9 Chris Singleton, in foul trouble.

Florida State plays an aggressive, physical man-to-man and Syracuse plays the most famous 2-3 matchup zone in the world, which means that there are distinct differences but a handful of similarities ("We're moving around so much, basically like a man, but we cover our areas very well,'' noted Syracuse forward Wes Johnson). Syracuse also has size all over the floor, which is what has made this edition of Boeheim's zone so effective that it has keyed a run to the nation's No. 1 ranking late in the season. Not many teams can handle a zone with that much size and speed.

Gonzaga might be able to.

Outside of 5-foot-11 point guard Demetri Goodson, their starters are 6-5 or taller, topping out at 7-foot Robert Sacre. All are athletic, long-armed, good floor runners, precise in the half-court and good shooters. The wing players, guards Steven Gray and Matt Bouldin and freshman forward Elia Harris, can all create their own shots, and they also pass well.

If one were to draw up a blueprint for defeating this Syracuse team, those factors would be on it. They don't necessarily match point-for-point with a couple of teams that did break the zone, more or less, late in the season, Big East foes Louisville and Georgetown, but it's close. (Asked if the reputation of the zone ever showed signs of getting into the heads of opponents, Boeheim retorted, "Georgetown shot 71 percent against us in the second half; I guess it didn't get in their minds.'')

And none of the aforementioned factors means anything without the element Gonzaga had in its favor against Florida State. "Make a bunch of shots -- that always makes life easier for a coach and player,'' Few said, adding that being as poised and disciplined as his team was against the Seminoles would help, too.

"They've really been forcing a lot of turnovers in their zone,'' Few said of this year's version. "We have to take care of the basketball and get shots on our terms.'' It was turnovers, not cooling off from the field, that let Florida State back into the game.

Also working in Gonzaga's favor is that it neither has to worry about being able to handle its circumstances or hope to play over its heads to win. Gonzaga, of course, has been through this all before, in the tournament against a high seed. It has been underestimated; the Bulldogs players and coaches are still chafed that its loss to St. Mary's in the West Coast Conference tournament final bumped them down to such a low seed ... and sent them to the opposite coast ... and steered them toward a virtual home game for the top seed.

On the other hand, Gonzaga would not be the program it is if it could not handle travel far to hostile places. Its signature wins this season came in Maui, over Wisconsin and Cincinnati; the Bulldogs won at Illinois, lost at Michigan State and in what should be a painful memory, got drilled by Duke in New York.

Then again, maybe that isn't a painful memory. "We had done so many games before in similar situations, I guess, where we travel everywhere,'' Bouldin said. "But you know, I think that's one we learned from and forgot about as quickly as we could.''

One legitimate worry the Bulldogs would have is their own depth, or lack thereof; their starters play the bulk of their minutes, and on Friday the bench contributed 25 minutes, zero points, four fouls and two turnovers. But they play a Syracuse team that cannot deny that it is at least different without Onuaku, and is sure to miss him more against them than they did against Vermont.

Still, Gonzaga isn't even buying that Onuaku won't play until they see him not in uniform. "It's his last year,'' Sacre said, "so I wouldn't blame him if he came out and tried to give it his all.''

Syracuse might very well need its all to avoid the upset by Gonzaga. Which, history tells us, wouldn't actually be much of an upset.

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