With the dust, controversy and near-letdown of the UNC-Asheville game in the rear-view mirror, Syracuse looks for bigger fish to fry on Saturday when it faces Kansas State with a chance at the Sweet 16 on the line.
But it won't be easy.
The Wildcats are a big, physical and almost prototypical Big 12 team on both ends of the floor. They can score in bunches and run away with the game if one's defense isn't up to par, and they can grind out tough games with physical and consistent defense. K-State is led by stern, yet steady and well-respected coach Frank Martin – who runs a tight, winning ship year-in, year-out.
Players to keep an eye on
The freshman point guard is as good as he is inconsistent. He'll drive the ball better than most despite heavy traffic, and he isn't afraid of the big moment – considering he was the late driving force that got K-State by Southern Miss on Thursday with clutch baskets. As a floor general, he can be flustered with pressure, and his turnover rate is nearly as much as his assists (1: .81).
"The coaches prepared us well today, in terms of, you know, our players not leaving me alone with the ball," said Rodriguez on Friday.
The 6-foot-11 New Yorker is Fab Melo-like in terms of his ability to impact the game. Like the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Henriquez can dominate the paint without it showing up in the box score every time out. However, against the Golden Eagles two days ago, he was such a force that even the stats couldn't convey his work as he put in 15 points, nine rebounds and six ferocious blocks.
"We're going to have to do our job of offensive rebounding against the zone, because that's what we're good at," said Henriquez on KSU's gaudy rebounding numbers (14 off. boards per game).
The veteran guard has come a long way during his time at Kansas State while sitting behind Wildcat legends. Now, he is the team's leading scorer and most consistent option on both ends of the floor. He will play your best shooter tough for 40 minutes, and he can light him up nearly at will on the other end of the court. McGruder had 30 points, seemingly easily, against Southern Miss and he can create his own shot inside or out.
"We have a lot of different styles and we prepare well for the zone," McGruder said. "We're going to attack the zone in a variety of ways, so…"
Rodruguez vs. the top of the Syracuse zone could be the key to the entire game. McGruder will get his points, and presumably Henriquez will impact the lane as usual – but a freshman in a big spot may be the rise and/or fall of K-State's NCAA Tourney ride. Coach Martin said he isn't worried or nervous when it comes to Rodriguez heading into the matchup, though.
"Those things are over with," Martin said about his nerves with the freshman. "I'm nervous about myself. Have I done my job well enough to prepare my team?"
Still, if Scoop Jardine and company pressure him consistently, the Orange can get out and run more than they have of late – which will translate to an easier day at the office especially considering McGruder's consistency and ability to score in many different ways.
Offensively, Syracuse will be in for a more efficient game believe it or not. Dion Waiters admitted that he absolutely hated facing zone defenses over the last two games, so expect him to stay aggressive throughout the game with the ball in his hands. Getting by Henriguez and the rest of a tall front line won't be easy, but SU has the athleticism to do it. Not only would getting to the rim help with consistent scoring, but it would also force the defense to collapse and allow open shots from the outside for a hot James Southerland and a looking-to-get-hot Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph.
Rebounding will remain an issue for Rakeem Christmas, Baye Keita and company against a solid front line – but the team must limit blocks and bad shots while still creating turnovers on the defensive end to make up for the weakness and get out in transition.
Though the offensive end should be a bit easier for the Orange, slowing down McGruder and Rodriguez won't be. The game could end up as a tough-it-out slugfest that comes down to free throws and fouls. Syracuse is the deeper bunch even without Melo inside, though shooting from the stripe is still a concern despite Jardine's out of body experience on Thursday when he nailed four big-time freebies to hold off UNC-Asheville.
An X-factor could be Will Spradling. The sophomore can light it up from long-range at times, though he is just 5 for his last 31 from distance over his last eight games. It's no secret that defeating the zone usually involves steady three-point shooting, though. Still, look for SU to silence the critics once again, but in a close one.
Advantage : Syracuse in a classic battle, 68