Syracuse fans were just hoping their team could survive the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. With Arinze Onuaku out, doubt had crept in and and not even a single win seemed like a sure thing. What they got were two blowout games and their team playing the best basketball they have all season. Syracuse absolutely destroyed Gonzaga, 87-65.
Things did not look good early for the Orange early (really early). On the Zags first possession they beat the zone over the top with an alley-oop. Second possession - they scored by throwing it inside and kicking it out for a jumper. Third possession - They scored in transition before the zone could set up. Those are three of the biggest ways to defeat the zone and in less than a minute and a half into the game, Gonzaga looked like they might have the answer to the riddle that is the 2-3 zone.
At the beginning, Wes Johnson was the only thing keeping them in the game. The skeptical Cuse fans began thinking - once he goes cold this isn't going to be good. Johnson scored 10 of their first 13 points on his way to a monstrous game.
The biggest factor in this game was supposed to be if Rick Jackson could play without getting into foul trouble. He picked up his second with 9:47 remaining (on a bad call where he was simply backing down Robert Sacre - let the big men play refs). Then, at 8:58 he picked up his third. At that point, Syracuse held a one-point lead, 22-21. Skeptical Cuse fan: Welp. There's the game. Gonzaga's going to start pounding it inside and take advantage of DaShonte Riley all game long.
But Gonzaga didn't take advantage of Jackson's absence. In fact, Syracuse went on a 9-0 run and finished the half outscoring the Zags 25-11. The Orange shot 61 percent in the half. Brandon Triche had 13 while Johnson added 15.
Riley played fine replacing Jackson but Gonzaga never really tested him. It's as if they had accomplished their goal of getting Jackson in foul trouble and then forgot why they wanted to do that. They rarely threw it in the post despite Sacre getting great position and begging for the ball. Elias Harris had a big first half around the rim (16 points on 8 shots) but many of those were from sneaking behind the zone as opposed to challenging Riley.
But despite a 15-point halftime lead there was still a sense Gonzaga could come back. Skeptical Cuse fan: If they begin feeding the ball to the post they could get easy buckets (they didn't). If they do feed it to the post, it could open up three-point shooting and they could catch fire (nope). If
they could get Matt Bouldin, their leading scorer from the season and
Western Conference Player of the Year going things could turn around in
a hurry (just 2 points in the first half and 8 for the game).
In the beginning of the second half even the most skeptical fan began to feel confident. Andy Rautins drained three three-pointers and a couple free throws in the first three minutes and the Orange's lead had extended to 24 points. The lead would balloon to as much as 32 with under 10 minutes to play before the Orange slowed the pace and salted the time away.
Wesley Johnson might just have entered the discussion for top pick in the NBA Draft. Johnson has always been considered a lottery pick since early in the season, but most of the discussion had been around John Wall and Evan Turner for the top pick. Johnson's stock took a bit of a dip because of his poor performances in February due to a swollen hand. Apparently, he could barely grip the ball and it hurt lifting anything. Now that hand is completely healed. Johnson hit 11 of his 16 shots including 4 of 6 three-pointers on his way to scoring a career-high 31 points and he also grabbed 14 rebounds while not turning the ball over once. He was phenomenal. He showed his entire game, from the step back jumper, the athleticism around the rim, the range, and also the defensive intensity. Now that his hand is healed he is ready and willing to take over games.
It was a near-perfect game for the Orange but the cynics and skeptics will remain. Skeptical Cuse fan: Now they have to turn around and travel to Salt Lake where the crowd won't be quite as partisan as it was in Buffalo. After the game Boeheim said, "We got a couple more days with DaShonte to give him some good practice time and get him up to speed a little bit more if we can." Tell me if that doesn't sound like Onuaku won't be coming back. Now they face Butler, who Boeheim said has been in his Top 10 all season long.But the optimist can talk about how this team has come out to play every single game of the season and will be prepared come Thursday. Wesley Johnson is completely healthy, Rautins is hitting his shots, Triche is contributing, Scoop is still a boost from the bench, and they're playing like they have all season long - like an elite team.