Former Big East rivals meet in Indianapolis for a spot in the Sweet 16
Former Big East Conference counterparts meet in 2021 representing the ACC and Big 12, as Syracuse and West Virginia face off in the Second Round of Midwest Regional competition of the NCAA Tournament.
Defensive styles define both the Orange and Mountaineers. The 2-3 zone Syracuse has run under longtime coach Jim Boeheim is a longtime hallmark of the program and seems to vex opponents without fail in March.
The Press Virginia style Bob Huggins' West Virginia teams employ is a throwback to an era when Nolan Richardson and Jerry Tarkanian led full-court pressing Arkansas and UNLV teams to national titles — and Huggins himself coached Cincinnati to the Final Four.
The 2021 Mountaineers are trying to reach the Final Four for the second time under Huggins, and the first time since 2010. First, they'll have to figure out the treacherous Syracuse zone.
Midwest Region: No. 11 Syracuse (17-9) vs. No. 3 West Virginia (19-9)
Time: Sunday, March 21 at approximately 5:15 p.m. ET
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Indianapolis)
Spread: West Virginia -3.5
Keys for Syracuse
Crucial to the 2-3 zone is forcing teams to take rushed shots from outside their usual range. A patient offense can counter the scheme with cutters moving into seams along the baseline and near the top of the key, but the zone's harassing presence on the wings and the corners leads to forced 3-point attempts.
San Diego State made 11 3-pointers on Friday, but a considerable portion came late, well after Syracuse owned a commanding lead. And a big part of that commanding lead? Jesse Edwards.
Syracuse center Jesse Edwards entered the game with San Diego State leading 18-14 midway through the first half. The Aztecs didn't score a single point with Edwards on the floor. He checked out late in the first half with a plus/minus of 16.— Matthew Gutierrez (@MatthewGut21) March 20, 2021
Offensively, Buddy Boeheim channeling Carmelo Anthony's 2003 run and going off for 30 points again would certainly help the Orange's case for another upset. Boeheim and Alan Griffin are both effective volume 3-point shooters and are offset well on the interior by Quincy Guerrier.
Keys for West Virginia
West Virginia's defensive approach emphasizes turnover-generation and the 2021 Mountaineers are no exception. They rank 60th nationally in both percentage of defensive possessions resulting in turnovers, and 60th in percentage of steals made per possession.
Forcing a Syracuse team that limits turnovers into an uncharacteristic bad choices is key, but perhaps not as much so as West Virginia's own offensive efficiency. The Mountaineers are top 10 nationally in adjusted efficiency per KenPom.com metrics behind four dangerous outside shooters: Jalen Bridges, Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil all hit the 3-pointer with efficiency and in considerable volumes, and Miles McBride is coming off a 30-point performance in Friday night's defeat of Morehead State.
McBride's ability to both score and distribute sets the tone. His play will be central to dictating the pace for the Mountaineers.
The Syracuse zone has produced several surprising trips to the second weekend (and further) in recent years. In 2021, however, the Orange draw an unfavorable matchup with West Virginia. The Mountaineers' offensive efficiency and variety of capable shooters can stretch out the Syracuse defense.
West Virginia is a team designed to finish strong, so if they can either take an early lead or keep it within a few possessions by the U-12 timeout in the second half, the Mountaineers should be able to kick to the finish line and the Sweet 16.
Prediction: West Virginia 71, Syracuse 59
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.