If at the beginning of the season someone had said Syracuse would lose in the Sweet 16 it wouldn't have sounded too bad. This team wasn't even ranked in the preseason having lost three of their starters who scored over half their points. But after watching them dominate all season long and then to play their worst game of the year when it counted the most makes this loss especially difficult.
Butler dictated the pace nearly the entire game. They wouldn't take a shot until the shot clock was under 15 seconds and then would make sure to get back on defense. Syracuse wanted the game in the 80s and Butler wanted it in the 60s. Clearly, Butler's style won out. Syracuse didn't hit their first field goal until six and a half minutes into the game. The Bulldogs beat the Orange 63-59.
The first half was riddled with mistakes by the Orange. Andy Rautins bailed out Butler by committing a foul on a three-pointer, Scoop Jardine took an ill-advised three-pointer he airballed that led to a three in transition, DaShonte Riley came into the game and immediately turned the ball over and then committed a foul on the other end. Basically, nothing went right for the Orange in the first 20 minutes.
Syracuse turned the ball over 18 times including 12 in the first half alone. Butler on the other hand, didn't turn the ball over until 3:25 left in the first half. Some of the credit goes to Butler. Their defense was swarming. They collapsed when the ball entered the post and never let the guards get any breathing room. But it was still careless mistakes by the Orange. There were passes directly to Butler, out of control dribbling and just lazy ball handling that exposed the ball to easy steals. Butler averages 6.5 steals per game but had 13 last night.
On the plus side, Syracuse couldn't have possibly played any worse in the first half. They trailed 35-25 and finally showed some life after halftime. Rautins hit a couple deep threes, then there was an inbounds alley oop to Wesley Johnson followed by a Rick Jackson steal and Johnson hit a three on the other end. Syracuse took the lead 40-39 on a 15-4 run to start the second half. It was a back and forth game from then on.
The biggest play came with 2:22 remaining when Ronald Nored stole the ball from Rautins and on the other end Willie Veasley knocked down a three after the ball bounced high off the rim, then off the backboard and went in. Veasley actually thought the ball was going to go over the backboard and out of bounds. The shot gave the Bulldogs a 58-54 lead. On that possession, Nored changed pivot foots before passing it inside but the travel wasn't called. How they missed it - I don't know because it was one of the most awkward movements I've ever seen.
On Syracuse's next possession, Rautins missed a three and after a miss by Shelvin Mack, it was Veasley again, this time with a tip in. But a few missed free throws kept Syracuse in the game and after Johnson made the first of two free throws to bring the game within four at 63-59, he missed the second and Rick Jackson couldn't grab the rebound right under the basket. Butler wins 63-59 to advance to their first Elite Eight ever.
Jackson couldn't grab the ball all game. He looked completely out of sync all night long. Why they had him out at the three-point line I'll never know. Sure, he's clearing out the middle but Syracuse wasn't getting anything in the paint anyways. He became a liability out there because he's not going to drive or shoot from there. The only thing he can do is pass. Maybe he wasn't quite the same because he's not used to playing 35 minutes per night.
Ronald Nored was all over Rautins (maybe a little TOO all over him). He forced Rautins to turn the ball over five times. If you've watched the Orange this season though, five turnovers isn't all that unusual from Rautins. In fact, turnovers aren't all that unusual for this team. But these types of turnovers were very unusual. Syracuse averaged 15 turnovers a game in the regular season but that's because they push the ball and many of those happen in transition. It's a feast or famine situation where if it's not a turnover it's an easy bucket. These turnovers were in the halfcourt set. In this game their rate of turnovers per possession was much higher than any game all season.
Rautins did hit some clutch threes that very few players in college basketball would take and even fewer would make. Rautins hit 4 of 8 from downtown on his way to 15 points.
Wesley Johnson had a solid game in what is most likely his last game with Syracuse. He had 17 points on 10 shots. Johnson had his best game of the season against Gonzaga by receiving the ball at the top of the key or at the closest the free throw line and he was given a chance to operate. Syracuse changed strategies and looked to post Johnson up. The strategy made sense on paper since he was being guarded by players three inches shorter than him but why go away from what had been working? Johnson barely posted up all season long. Syracuse turned the ball over a handful of times while trying to force a pass into Johnson.
I thought for Syracuse to lose this game Butler would have to be on fire from three-point range. But Syracuse held them to 6 of 24 from behind the arc. Butler outhustled the Orange and dictated the pace of the game on defense and offense.Butler moves on to play Kansas State to see who advances to Indianapolis. Syracuse goes home thinking about what could've been.