#10 Syracuse vs. #11 Gonzaga. If you guessed this matchup would take place you were really reaching. These two teams aren’t that different in overall skill level and talent, but Gonzaga is the supreme team but a good margin. Only the Zags were underseeded while the Cuse was lucky to get in.
Gonzaga has weather a tough road so far with games against Seton Hall and Utah. And while those were serious title contenders, they did provide some matchups that tested this team. Syracuse instead didn’t face much of a test for Dayton or Middle Tennessee State and were lucky to not have to face Michigan State.
This is a curious matchup, though, as neither team features stellar point guard play or even really starts a true point guard. Josh Perkins is the closest it comes to that, but 6’11 Domantas Sabonis is the point forward his big father would be proud of. Even without Przemek Karnowski (7’1), the Bulldogs have a formidable frontline with another talented big in Kyle Wiltjer (6’10). Wiltjer hasn’t been the All-American candidate one would have hoped for, but that may say more for what his team accomplished than himself.
Gonzaga needs other contributors on both offense and defense. Both Silas Melson and Eric McClellan must be two-way players and work against the wings of Syracuse. Following around guys like Malachi Richardson, Michael Gbinije, and Trevor Cooney will be of the utmost importance. This is the most important matchup tonight.
The Orange took themselves out of the tournament before it even began last season (with impending restrictions on the program). They got in with some skepticism this year, but only because they struggled to close things out. This team is a funny one, they’ve got some good players and a great defensive scheme but don’t necessarily fit together that well. Still, they’ve been good enough to get this far.
Richardson has gradually taken on more of a role in the offense as the season has progressed. His range and toughness will come in handy. Michael Gbinije is the point forward of the team. The Duke transfer leads the Orange in scoring, assists, steals, and 3-point percentage. His ability to penetrate the bigs of Gonzaga will be very telling.
Two other important pieces are Trevor Cooney and Tyler Roberson. Cooney has always had the range and shooter’s mentality to keep heaving it up at the hoop. His defense is weak, but the team defense picks up his slack. Roberson is a big body who plays bigger than his listed height (6’6). He’s not much of a stretch 4 but he doesn’t need to be. If he can rebound and play solid defense then they will be fine.
The guy that will be key is Tyler Lydon. The 6’9 freshmen who has come off the bench the entire season is perhaps the most talented player on the roster. He shoot from deep, rebound, and jump with the best. But will be able to come through in the clutch when needed? Assuming DaJuan Coleman and Franklin Howard can provide some good minutes this should be a doozy.
Neither team is oozing with depth and both will play an ugly game, but who will play the better defense? Dayton was basically a less talented slightly smaller version of Gonzaga and we saw how the Orange did against them. Syracuse is a system team that’s tough to play in the tournament. This game will be just as tough. Syracuse 75, Gonzaga 73