The Syracuse Orange and Houston Cougars have navigated similar paths to this Saturday's Sweet 16 matchup: a dominant opening-round win followed by a nail-biting three-point victory. Houston opened its NCAA Tournament with a dominant 87-56 performance against 15-seed Cleveland State before overcoming a halftime deficit against 10-seed Rutgers on Sunday for a 63-60 victory. Syracuse, on the other hand, took it to 11-seed San Diego State with a 78-62 win before pulling off its second upset in as many games — though in much closer fashion — with a 75-72 thriller against 3-seed West Virginia.
These two programs have met just once, squaring off in December 1982 in the first season of the Phi Slama Jama era of Houston basketball. The Orange upset the No. 9-ranked Cougars 92-87 in the Carrier Dome, handing Houston its first loss of the season. Coming out on top of the Cougars didn't happen often in those days, as Houston lost just 16 times — including once in the Final Four and twice in the national championship — in the 104 games between the 1981-82 and 1983-84 seasons.
Midwest Region: No. 11 Syracuse (18-9) vs. No. 2 Houston (26-3)
Time: Saturday, March 27 at 9:55 p.m. ET
Where: Hinkle Fieldhouse (Indianapolis)
Spread: Houston -6.0
Keys for Syracuse
Defense may not have won Jim Boeheim's Orange a national championship — not since 2003, at least — but Syracuse has brought opposing offenses to all but a screeching halt once the calendar flipped to March. Boeheim's group has held each of its last six opponents under 72 points, a number that stretches to 18 of 27 over the course of the entire 2020-21 campaign, postseason included. In the NCAA Tournament, Syracuse limited 6-seed San Diego State to just 62 points and high-powered 3-seed West Virginia to 72, holding both under 30 first-half points to set the table for the task ahead.
That defense has been plenty visible on the scoreboard as well as in the pressure that the Orange place on opposing offenses. Syracuse entered the Big Dance among the top 20 in Division I in blocks (4.9) and steals (8.7) per game, with Alan Griffin (1.8 blocks per game) along with Kadary Richmond (1.8 steals per game) and Joseph Girard III (1.52 spg) among the team leaders in those categories. That helped to spark the third-highest scoring offense in the ACC, which entered the Tournament averaging 75.8 points per game, led by Buddy Boeheim's 17.1, with Griffin (14.7) and Quincy Guerrier (14.4) not far behind.
Keys for Houston
Rutgers hung with Houston in the Round of 32 — especially with the Scarlet Knights taking a three-point lead into halftime — but the Cougars came back and fended off an early exit. Only Quentin Grimes (22) — who played all 40 minutes, the only player on either side to go the distance — and Dejon Jarreau (17) eclipsed double digits in scoring, while the seven other Cougars who took the floor combined for just 24 points. The 63 points for Houston on Sunday fell nearly 15 below its season average (77.6 entering the NCAA Tournament), and it marked the Cougars' first game held under 65 points since their 65-64 loss at Tulsa on Dec. 29, and the team's fifth such game all season (previously held twice to 63, twice to 64).
The Cougars clearly struggled to score on Sunday, shooting just 37.3 percent from the field — well under their season average of 44.4 percent — and made just 11 of their 18 free throws. But Houston relied on its tough defense and rebounding (+10 total rebounds, +8 offensive rebounding) to aid in the comeback effort, paced by Grimes' nine boards and six apiece for Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark.
Houston has outrebounded each of its first two opponents in the NCAA Tournament by double digits — +14 against Cleveland State, +10 against Rutgers — with close to that size of a margin (+9 and +8, respectively) on the offensive glass. With rebounding often playing a key role in Tournament games, Syracuse's struggles on the boards (12th in ACC, 250th in Division I) are certainly a positive sign for Houston, which led the AAC and is eighth in Division I with a plus-9.1 rebounding margin. But the Cougars must be careful not to overlook the Orange, who have posted two straight upset wins in March — one by 16 points, one by three points — and have their sights set on a third.
Prediction: Houston 67, Syracuse 63
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.