After rolling to an easy win over Vermont, the top-seeded Syracuse Orange gets a tougher draw in No. 8 Gonzaga in today's second-round West Regional contest. The Bulldogs have been billed as one of the giant killers of college basketball because of their past success against higher seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
But they face a tall order in trying to knock off the Orange, which is arguably the best team Gonzaga has faced this season.
Adding to the challenge is having a short period of time to prepare for SU's vaunted 2-3 zone defense and playing what essentially will be a home game for SU, whose orange-clad following will make up the majority of the HSBC Arena crowd.
Still, this won't be a cakewalk for Syracuse like Friday's 79-56 wipeout of Vermont was. The Orange will play its second game without center Arinze Onuaku, who has a quad injury.
Syracuse was extremely efficient offensively against Vermont, assisting on 24 of 30 baskets. The Orange didn't miss Onuaku as Rick Jackson and Kris Joseph combined for 20 points and 16 rebounds in the paint.
Wes Johnson, who had 18 points and six rebounds against Vermont, poses the biggest matchup problem for Gonzaga. The 6-foot-7 forward is long, athletic and can score and defend anywhere on the court.
The Bulldogs also need to locate sharp-shooting guard Andy Rautins, who pulls defenses away from Johnson. Scoop Jardine (14 points Friday) continues to be instant offense off the bench, and when inconsistent freshman point guard Brandon Triche plays as steady as he did Friday, the Orange is hard to defend.
SU's 2-3 zone is so tough because of its size. Its long-armed defenders force teams to take tough, contested shots and their active hands deflect a lot of passes that lead to turnovers. When a team does penetrate, the Orange collapse quickly around the ball.
The Orange's interior defense is not as intimidating without Onuaku, but Jackson is a good shot blocker and physical presence.
Gonzaga has the kind of team that can give Syracuse trouble. The Bulldogs have outstanding perimeter shooters in guards Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray and freshman forward Elias Harris.
You can't just rely on jump shots against the Orange. Bouldin and Gray are capable of breaking down defenses with penetration and 7-foot center Robert Sacre is a capable scorer inside.
Gonzaga -- especially Bouldin -- is a good passing team that knows how to attack gaps in a defense. The Bulldogs put on a clinic in ball movement in the first half of their 67-60 win against Florida State, but their tendency to force passes could be costly against SU.
As much as scoring will be important, Gonzaga has to defend. SU is a much better shooting team than Florida State, and the Orange will get points in transition if the Bulldogs don't hustle back on the defensive end.
Syracuse could miss Onuaku if Jackson gets into foul trouble because Gonzaga has the size to do damage inside. But Syracuse has the more talented team. While the Bulldogs won't be intimidated by SU's home-court advantage, they must shoot the ball well to have a chance.