Friday evening, the TCU Horned Frogs play in an actual NCAA tournament game, a fun sentence to type, and an even more fun reality to experience. The Frogs face Jim Boehim and the Syracuse Orange, winners of an eleven-seed play-in game. TCU faced a season of runs: a hot 13-0 to start, followed by a bumpy 1-4 in conference play, and split games before winning 4 in a row before a loss at Texas Tech and a quick exit in the Big 12 tournament. TCU clearly has yet to arrive on the scene of college basketball; the program has been a trendy upset pick, and even called “the most over-seeded” team in the field by one analyst of obviously impeccable credibility and judgement.
The Frogs and the Orange constitute a compelling matchup on multiple levels. First, we have a traditional basketball power working to re-establish themselves in a new league versus a program whose focus has been elsewhere, ready to become a part of the basketball conversation. More importantly, we have a matchup of styles - Syracuse is long and stingy on defense, TCU mobile and efficient on offense.
These two teams are mirror images. TCU (22nd in Kenpom) is an offense first (8th) team with a sub 100 defense. Syracuse (52nd) is a defense first team (10th) with a sub 130 offense.
When Syracuse has the ball:
The Syracuse team ranks near the bottom in effective field goal percentage (and in 2pt% and 3pt%), and they are turnover prone - 282nd in steals and 230 in turnover percentage on offense. The Orange make their hay at the free throw line - they shoot 73.5% from the line, and are ninth in the nation in share of points from FT (23.9 points per 100 possessions come from free throws), and they rank 30th in the nation in Free Throws per Field Goal, indicating that drawing fouls is an offensive strength. They have one player with an offensive rating over 110, the big man whom we will address later. The Orange like to play slow - 341st in possession length.
The TCU defense is sub-230 in opponent shooting percentage, 3 point percentage and turnover percentage, so the Orange and the Frogs have matching areas of struggle on this end of the court. A determining factor in this game will be whether or not the Orange can capitalize on TCU’s areas of defensive deficiency. TCU is near the top third in blocks and steals, a facet of their game that picked up and steadily increased over the course of the year - the Frogs will find defensive success as far as they are able to harass Syracuse with turnovers.
The tipping point of the Syracuse Offense - TCU Defense sub-game is rebounding. Syracuse is top 15 in offensive rebounding, and TCU is a top 60 defensive rebounding team. A barometer for success throughout the game will be the matchup between the two “hustle” rebounders - Kenrich Williams (136th in Defensive Rebounding) and the combination of Marek Dolezaj (Both with an Offensive rebounding percentage near 10%). Whichever side wins the rebounding battle will win the game.
When TCU has the Ball:
Now we get to the matchup of strength on strength - TCU’s annoyingly efficient offense ranks 6th in the nation, and Syracuse’s defense 10th. The Frogs excel in shooting percentage and offensive rebounding - when they do miss, they get their board more often than not. TCU gets most of their points from 2 pointers, despite their 12th in the nation 3 point shooting percent - rebounding success is not unrelated to that fact. TCU has two relative weak spots on offense - they are 293rd in the nation in block percentage, and they shoot free throws at an abysmal 70.8%.
The Orange play a long, athletic zone, and their defensive disruption comes from contesting shots fiercely - Syracuse is second in the nation in block percentage, and they allow only 44.9% shooting from 2pt range. Their goal is to stifle TCU’s ball movement, shut down the drive, and contest in the post. Vlad has his hands full. Blocks will be an in-game indicator of how well TCU’s offense is going; against this zone, if TCU struggles, you’ll see a lot of “drive and throws” that get blocked. If TCU succeeds, it will be by moving the ball and shooting well on the perimeter.
Battle of the Bigs:
The 7’2’’ Elephant in the Room is Paschal Chukwu, an offensive rebounding and shot blocking machine. He has been used on less than 12% of possessions this season, and so is not exactly a force on offense in terms of volume (although his Offensive Rating is 273rd in the nation). Chukwu is the definition of a rim protector, and he is part of what makes Syracuse the largest team in the nation by Kenpom’s effective height statistic.
What we have to consider, here, is how Vlad will fair on offense - TCU relies on the big man. Vlad has scored in the double digits in all but 4 games, and the Frogs will need some kind of effort out of their Slovakian Hero today. We fortunately have a pretty strong precedent for this matchup; last season, TCU faced UCF and the 7-6 Tacko Fall in the semi-finals of the NIT. In that game, Vlad scored 18 points, adding nine rebounds and three assists, minus only two turnovers. Clearly, Vlad knows how to play when he is outsized. Additionally, though that UCF team was 68th overall in Kenpom last year, their defense was 18th, and wait for it, they played mostly zone. Last season, TCU ran a comparable team off the court. Granted, TCU had a bench quite unlike what they have this season, and UCF didn’t have the mastermind of Jim Boehim, but the Frogs won that game on the backs of Kenny, Vlad, and Alex Robinson. Those three will need to show up tonight (and Desmond Bane getting right wouldn’t hurt) and the Frogs sit in a situation where their first NCAA tournament in recent memory is in reach.