Ohio State only obstacle Syracuse can't conquer this season

by | College Basketball Recruiting Blogger
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BOSTON -- Nothing was able to stop Syracuse this season.

Not the Bernie Fine scandal at the beginning of the season, not the report about the university's drug policies, not even starting center Fab Melo's suspension. It seemed like the Orange could get past every bump in the road.

And then came Saturday night. Syracuse finally met its match as Ohio State dominated the backboards en route to a 77-70 victory in the East Regional final.

"I thought we could overcome anything," junior guard Brandon Triche said. "I thought it was destined."

It sure seemed that way. Syracuse rolled to a 30-1 record during the regular season, with the only loss coming at Notre Dame when Melo was out. The second loss came in the Big East tournament, when the Orange had already wrapped up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

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Even with Melo suspended for the NCAA tournament, Syracuse continued to march toward New Orleans. The Orange skated by UNC-Asheville in the Round of 64, and then rolled in the second half against Kansas State. Against Wisconsin, Syracuse overcame 14 3-pointers and a tremendous shooting performance by the Badgers to advance.

Nothing fazed Syracuse.

"I don't think they ever wavered for a moment," assistant coach Mike Hopkins said. "They thought they could overcome anything thrown their way. These guys battled through adversity, deflected everything."

Heading into the season, Syracuse was considered one of the contenders for the Final Four, but the Orange had more question marks than nearly every other top-five threat. They began answering those questions almost immediately.

The Bernie Fine scandal was supposed to be a distraction. Aside from head coach Jim Boeheim answering an extra few questions at press conferences, that didn't stop Syracuse.

The report about drug use, and the school possibly ignoring its drug policies, was supposed to be a distraction. That didn't stop Syracuse.

Melo's suspension was supposed to be the last straw. It wasn't.

"We definitely thought we would be in the Final Four, the championship game," junior forward James Southerland said. "We fought through so much stuff."

Instead, Ohio State proved to be the final wall in Syracuse's path to New Orleans.

"We were going to play the way we played all year," senior guard Scoop Jardine said. "Tonight just wasn't really our night."

Syracuse's depth was tested almost immediately on Saturday night, as the officials got started early with whistles. Forty-nine fouls were called by the end of the night. Dion Waiters and James Southerland fouled out, while C.J. Fair, Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita all finished with four fouls.

The Orange were never able to get their running game going, and they looked out of sync in a half-court setting. With so many players shuffling in and out, there was limited continuity and the offense had no flow.

Syracuse thrives on transition offense, but it finished with zero fast-break points. For a team that needs easy baskets off turnovers, that seemed like a death sentence.

"Our offense just hurt us tonight," Boeheim said. "We weren't as patient as we have been."

"Today was just an off day for us," sophomore forward C.J. Fair added.

Syracuse's problem all season was allowing too many offensive rebounds, ranking near the bottom in defensive rebounding percentage. While it had been a deficiency at times this year, the lack of defensive rebounding had never cost them a game. On Saturday, it finally caught up to the Orange.

Ohio State grabbed 14 offensive rebounds, and dominated the glass at both ends. Syracuse's leading rebounder was Keita, but he grabbed 10 of the team's 26 rebounds while playing just 24 minutes. The Buckeyes had 12 second-chance points and constantly forced Syracuse to commit fouls because the Orange big men were out of position.

In the second half, Ohio State had seven offensive rebounds; Syracuse had five defensive rebounds.

"[Jared] Sullinger is just too difficult down low," Boeheim said. "We've got two freshmen and a sophomore that weighs 200 pounds. They're at a big disadvantage."

Syracuse still had chances to win on Saturday night. The Orange made a run late in the game to cut a 10-point lead down to one, but they couldn't get over the hump. Unlike so many times this year, when Syracuse bounced back from adversity to come out on top, it couldn't come up big when it counted.

This was the one speed-bump the Orange couldn't plow through.

"All year we've been able to make a play in that situation," Boeheim said. "We just didn't."

After everything Syracuse had been through in the past five months, the season wasn't supposed to end like this. Not in Boston, not in the Elite Eight, not with fifth-year senior Jardine spending most of the last four minutes on the bench.

Given the distractions that the Orange had been through since November, it looked like nothing could stop them.

After not getting to a Final Four since the title run in 2003, this was the year.

It was supposed to end in New Orleans.

"Everybody believed we would win a national championship," Fair said. "That's why it hurts so much."

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