A pair of teams looking to put disappointing regular-season finishes behind them face off in Salt Lake City
Neither Baylor nor Syracuse are strangers to NCAA Tournament success during this decade. For that reason, their matchup on Thursday in Salt Lake City promises to be one of the must-see first-round games.
The Orange made Final Four runs in 2013 and '16. They also reached the Elite Eight in 2012 and the Sweet 16 in '10 and '18. The Bears made a Sweet 16 run a year ago and in 2014. Before that, Baylor reached the Elite Eight in 2010 and '12.
Both teams landed lower seeds after key injuries caused them to pile up losses late in the season. The Bears lost four straight coming into the tournament and the Orange dropped five of seven.
Baylor is making its fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. The Bears earned their lowest seed since being awarded a No. 11 seed in 2008. Syracuse is in the 68-team field for the third time in four seasons. The Orange are a No. 8 seed for just the second time in their history after being awarded the same seed in 1999.
West Region: No. 9 Baylor Bears (19-13) vs. No. 8 Syracuse Orange (20-13)
Time: 9:57 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Where: Vivint Smart Home Arena (Salt Lake City)
Keys for Baylor
Rebounding will be a critical area of difference in this game and it is one the Bears need to exploit. Baylor ranks second nationally in offensive rebounds, grabbing those second-chance boards on 38.2 percent of their possessions. The Bears haul in 13.4 offensive rebounds per game while Syracuse is vulnerable on the glass. The Orange rank 335th out of 353 Division I teams in defensive rebounding, so it is definitely an area where Baylor can attack.
Limiting dribble penetration is crucial if Baylor wants to keep Syracuse on its heels on offense. The Orange are a terrible 3-point shooting team and rely on their guards cutting to the basket to get the bulk of their points. Baylor may need to rely on a zone defense to beat Syracuse with King McClure and Makai Mason still working on getting back to full strength after battling injuries during Big 12 play.
Keys for Syracuse
Tyus Battle is the engine that makes the Orange offense go. That engine coughed and sputtered in the ACC Tournament while Battle was sidelined with a back injury. Now he's back on the court and Syracuse will need him to get the team going early to give the 2-3 zone more teeth. Battle, a junior, led the Orange with 17.2 points per game on 43 percent shooting — including 32 percent from the perimeter — during the regular season. He will take on an even more critical role with Frank Howard not making the trip with the team out to Utah.
Applying defensive pressure early and often can pay dividends for Syracuse. Baylor is a team that struggles to take care of the ball. The Bears rank 264th in the nation in offensive turnover percentage. That's music to the ears of the Orange defense. Syracuse ranks 10th nationally in defensive turnovers forced. The Orange know how to get steals and getting a few early could rattle Baylor.
Syracuse has a track record for making deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. The Orange have not lost a first-round game since 2006. Baylor will have some support from the crowd in Salt Lake City since a pair of current Utah Jazz players (Ekpe Udoh and Royce O'Neale) and the team's GM (Dennis Lindsey) are all Baylor alumni. That will only get the Bears so far. Baylor has struggled to generate offense on a consistent basis and doesn't have the firepower to bust the Syracuse zone that routinely flummoxes so many teams in the postseason.
Prediction: Syracuse 68, Baylor 62
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.