The last time Indiana attempted to solve Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone in the Sweet 16 last March, it took the Hoosiers six minutes to score their first field goal, 10 minutes to score their second and more than 18 minutes to sink their first three-pointer.
Indiana fared no better eight months later in Tuesday night's rematch.
Unable to efficiently score inside against Syracuse's long, athletic front line or to knock down shots from the perimeter with any consistency, the Hoosiers fell out of striking distance early in the second half and lost 69-52 in a Big Ten-ACC Challenge matchup. The ferocious Orange defense held Indiana to 36.6 percent shooting and 34 points shy of its season average.
Not having success against the zone had to be especially frustrating for an Indiana team motivated to avenge last March's season-ending loss. Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller, Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford led the high-scoring Hoosiers to a Big Ten title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but they fell behind fourth-seeded Syracuse by 18 early and never seriously threatened in a 61-50 loss.
Whereas last year's Indiana team had an array of shooters capable of hitting from over the top of the zone, this year's Hoosiers needed to counter Syracuse with strengths it didn't have last season. Greater length and athleticism gave Indiana a better chance to score in transition before the zone was set and to attack the offensive glass for put-backs and second-chance points.
That strategy helped Indiana (6-2) claw back from an early 10-0 deficit to briefly take the lead late in the first half, but the youthful Hoosiers faded quickly once Syracuse (8-0) clamped down after halftime.
Too many times they settled for contested jump shots early in the shot clock. Too many times they failed to take care of the ball. Were it not for the 3-point shooting of point guard Yogi Ferrell (12 points) and the ability to get to the foul line of forward Noah Vonleh (17 points), Indiana might not have managed to crack 40 points.
Highlighting Indiana's woes further was Syracuse's offensive efficiency. Trevor Cooney sank five threes and Tyler Ennis and C.J. Fair tallied 17 and 15 points respectively as the Orange shot 51.1 percent from the floor and got to the foul line 25 times.
The lopsided result reaffirmed conventional wisdom about both Indiana and Syracuse this season.
The underclassmen-heavy Hoosiers flashed bursts of promise but generally looked like a team a year away from contending in the Big Ten or making a deep NCAA tournament run. The Maui Invitational champion Orange, on the other hand, look like a national contender, especially if freshman point guard Tyler Ennis continues to develop and Jerami Grant can provide further frontcourt scoring help for Fair.
A huge game from Grant wasn't necessary Tuesday, however. Just like last March, the zone was all Syracuse needed.
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