MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Syracuse Orange have battled Big East behemoths like Louisville, Connecticut and Pittsburgh — all No. 1 seeds and still playing in the NCAA tournament. They have dealt with big men like Pitt’s DeJuan Blair and UConn’s seven-foot-three Hasheem Thabeet.
Now comes Oklahoma’s powerful Blake Griffin.
Let the flattery begin.
“Probably going to be the No. 1 pick in this upcoming year’s draft,” Syracuse guard Jonny Flynn said. “He’s just so tenacious on the offensive end and the defensive end. He controls the game. He just really plays the game at his own speed. That’s what makes him good.”
Griffin stands in the way of the hardworking, third-seeded Orange and a piece of history for coach Jim Boeheim on Friday night.
Boeheim could win his 800th game with a victory in the South Regional semifinal against second-seeded Oklahoma at the FedExForum. The winner plays either North Carolina or Gonzaga on Sunday.
As for No. 800, Boeheim isn’t thinking about reaching 900 or 1,000.
“I plan on finishing this year for sure,” the 64-year-old coach said.
Boeheim calls Griffin the best big man his Orange (28-9) have faced this season. The best offensive rebounder and passer. In short, the best player in the country.
“If he hadn’t gotten hurt, they’d be a No. 1 seed, which would’ve been good. We wouldn’t have had to play him,” Boeheim said.
That’s plenty of pressure for any player, let alone a sophomore. Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel isn’t shying away from the expectations. If anything, he’s heaping more onto Griffin’s shoulders to carry the Sooners (29-5) to their first 30-win season since 2002 and first regional final since 2003, when they lost to Syracuse on the Orange’s way to a national title.
Capel said he told Griffin he may have to wrap his arms around his teammates and bring them with him.
“This is where legends are made, this tournament, and this is where legends continue to grow,” Capel said.
Griffin has played even better in the post-season than he did in winning Big 12 player of the year.
He’s averaging 30.5 points and 15 rebounds in the first two NCAA tournament wins, and the player of the year candidate has missed only seven shots.
Syracuse will counter Griffin with Boeheim’s 2-3 zone and a pair of 6-9 forwards in Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson.