PITTSBURGH When the NCAA Tournament bracket was revealed, and Kansas State fans began pondering a third-round game against No. 1-seed Syracuse, matching up against the Orange’s physical front line had to be a concern.
Fab Melo is one of the best shot-blockers in the nation, and Rakeem Christmas is one of the most talented freshmen around. It seemed like a Syracuse advantage.
But now that the game is here, many are wondering the opposite: How will Syracuse deal with K-State’s frontcourt?
Melo won’t play because of an eligibility issue, and Syracuse struggled without him during a narrow opening victory over North Carolina-Asheville. It could be difficult for the Orange to take on K-State’s Jordan Henriquez, who is as hot as any big man still playing. He has averaged 15.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4.2 blocks over the past five games, and was a defensive force against Southern Mississippi in Thursday’s opening win.
“My confidence level has sky-rocketed,” Henriquez said. “I’m trying to stay out of foul trouble like I did at the end of the last game so I can play as much as possible. I’m playing to the best of my ability right now.”
He is also making the game easier for those around him.
“I’m really proud of how far Jordan has come along,” senior Victor Ojeleye said. “He’s my favorite big man with all he can do. I think he is going to be a really special player for us going into this game.”
Syracuse has taken notice. Jim Boeheim and his staff watched K-State’s win and began thinking of ways to combat Henriquez, Jamar Samuels and Thomas Gipson.
Without Melo, it won’t be easy. Like Henriquez, he is a 7-footer who focuses on protecting the rim. It would have been exciting to see them go head-to-head. Instead, Syracuse will ask Baye Keita, a 6-foot-10 center, and C.J. Fair to try slowing him down. They have helped the Orange win 32 games. They are capable.
“They played against good big guys,” Boeheim said. “They worked in practice every day against Fab. So they’ve played against guys that are big. It’s important for them to play as well as they can play.”
Henriquez realizes that if he plays well, K-State could advance to the Sweet 16.
“It’s a great opportunity for me,” Henriquez said. “I’m just trying to help my team win in the best way I can. Collectively it’s just about beating the No. 1 seed. It’s a great opportunity for us.”
Syracuse runs a zone defense exclusively. K-State saw zone from Baylor in three meetings (one win) this season.
“Syracuse is different because they play that zone so it’s not like they’re letting Jordan play one-on-one with one of their big guys,” K-State’s Rodney McGruder said. “It’s a totally different approach.”
Keys to success will be finding open lanes, being in the right spot and attacking. Henriquez has been dominant in the defensive lane lately and will make Syracuse’s guards think about him when they drive.
But more will be asked of Samuels and Gipson. Henriquez may enter Saturday’s game with the hype reserved for Melo, but he will need help grabbing rebounds. For being a top seed, Syracuse is not a great rebounding team, ranking 231st in Division I rebound margin (-1.3).
“Rebound, play physical and just play our game. That’s what we need to do,” Samuels said. “We worked on a lot of zone and preparing for Syracuse. We’ve just got to crash the boards like this is the last game we’re ever going to play. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”