Although the Wisconsin Badgers have played two of their most impressive games of the season in the NCAA tournament, they’ll face arguably the year’s toughest competition in the Sweet 16.
Thursday night, the No. 4 seed Badgers face the top-seed Syracuse Orange in Boston, where Wisconsin will be looking to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since the 2004-05 season. Madison has grown accustomed to hard-nosed, electric play from their Badgers so far in the Big Dance, but the Orange present an entirely different sort of beast. With a long, athletic roster that excels at the 2-3 defense, Syracuse thrives on keeping opponents off the scoreboard.
But Syracuse has its faults. Starting center Fab Melo was suspended for the duration of the tournament due to academic issues, leaving the Orange without a player who averages nearly three blocks per game.
To get a glimpse of Syracuse’s view of this intriguing Sweet 16 matchup, I talked to Zach Brown of the Daily Orange. Below is a Q & A from my conversation with Brown on topics ranging from how Syracuse has rebounded from losing Melo to if head coach Jim Boeheim’s job was ever really in danger.
Mike Fiammetta: Obviously, the loss of Fab Melo was the story for Syracuse entering up. To sum up, how have they dealt with his loss?
Zach Brown: Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita are the two guys who have kind of replaced him. Against Kansas State, Rakeem Christmas played probably his best game of the season. He had eight points and 11 rebounds against Jordan Henriquez, who’s Kansas State’s 6-foot-11 center. So everyone was kind of worried about how Rakeem would respond without Fab, who was the Defensive Player of the Year in the Big East, but Christmas kind of gave everyone hope and showed, you know, SU might actually be fine moving on through the tournament.
MF: Strictly on the court, how much of a different team is the Orange without Melo?
ZB: Well, they lose kind of their best shot-blocker, obviously. That’s why he was Defensive Player of the Year. Offensively, he didn’t contribute a whole lot. It’s like they gave him the ball in the post and said, ‘Ok, Fab, do what you can do here.’ He got most of his points off of alley-oops and pick-and-rolls and stuff like that, or put-backs. So it’s not a huge effect on the offensive end, but he definitely could’ve [been] a much bigger influence.
MF: In your mind, how do Syracuse and Wisconsin match up?
ZB: I think it’ll be an interesting game because, obviously, both teams really thrive on the defensive end. It could be something where the first team to 50 or 60 [points] wins the game. I think from what I’ve seen of Wisconsin, SU has a lot more athleticism, so I’m interested to see how Wisconsin’s defense — which has been really good all year — matches up with Deon Waiters’, Scoop Jardine’s and Kris Joseph’s that Syracuse can throw at them.
MF: In Syracuse, on campus, in the city, what’s the talk like about facing Wisconsin? Obviously, the Orange are the higher seed, the No. 1 seed, I think widely perceived to be the more athletic team. Are many fans familiar with the Badgers, do you think?
ZB: I don’t know that they know a whole lot about them. I think they were happier to see Wisconsin than Vanderbilt after everyone kind of had picked Vanderbilt as a team that could get to the Final Four and beat Syracuse, especially without Fab Melo. But I’m not sure that fans really know a whole lot about Wisconsin other than, you know, they’re just really hard-working, kind of a defensive slugfest, slug-it-out kind of team.
MF: Given everything that Syracuse has gone through this season between the Bernie Fine situation, Fab Melo and the drug test situation that kind of broke right around the time the tournament was starting, how has Syracuse managed to do so well under adversity this season?
ZB: They’ve said since the Bernie Fine stuff was going on, and coach Boeheim has said, the basketball players don’t care about the stuff that’s going on off the court because most of it, other than the Fab stuff, hasn’t really affected them actually playing in games. I think they’ve shown that throughout the year by only losing two games on the whole season. The players have said, you know, they see all that stuff, they get asked about it in the locker room, after games and whenever’s there’s a media presence, but other than that there’s not stuff that really comes up a lot just within the team.
MF: Do you think Jim Boeheim’s job was ever in danger at any point in the season, given obviously they were great on the court, but it was almost at every point it was scandal and another scandal, [rather] than the academic issues in Melo. Was he ever in danger of losing his job?
ZB: Unless other stuff broke that kind of implicated him in any of this off-court stuff, then I don’t think he was ever really in danger. He’s been here for 36 years. He doesn’t seem to think that his job has ever been on the line, and everyone in Syracuse really loves Boeheim. So I don’t think his job’s ever been in danger.
MF: Let’s say Syracuse, at the very least, makes the Final Four. Given everything that went on this season, where do you think this team would rank in Syracuse history?
ZB: Well, I actually wrote a column earlier this year that this team is right up there with the best that Syracuse has ever had. I think the only thing stopping them from being considered the best ever would be if they don’t win the national championship because then by default, it goes to the 2003 team that did win the championship.
Mike is a senior majoring in journalism. How do you think Wisconsin matches up against Syracuse? Let him know on Twitter @mikefiammetta.