Unless Larry Bird has more eligibility remaining at Indiana State, the Syracuse University men’s basketball team should have no problem conquering the Sycamores in its NCAA Tournament opener Friday, March 18, in Cleveland. After that, though, it could get a little tricky.
If the Orange, seeded No. 3 in the East, defeats Indiana State, it will have to face either Xavier or fellow Big East Conference member Marquette in the next round Sunday, March 20. Neither opponent will be easy; Xavier will be playing what amounts to a home game at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, while Marquette downed SU in their only meeting this season.
And if SU gets past either of those teams, No. 2-seed North Carolina and Ohio State—the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament—would likely await them in the Sweet 16 in Newark, N.J. Or, if Ohio State loses, SU could face another college basketball heavyweight, No. 4 Kentucky.
ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale called the East the “toughest region of all.” SU coach Jim Boeheim couldn’t agree more. “It’s a tough bracket, but any bracket you look at is going to be tough,” he said. “We’re playing well, and we look forward to the tournament and the challenge.”
SU (26-7) had won six consecutive games before losing to eventual champion Connecticut last week in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament. The loss didn’t really hurt the Orange because it still received a No. 3 seed and it gave SU a full week to rest before the NCAA Tournament. In its Bracketology special, which aired Sunday after the bracket was revealed, ESPN analysts Jay Bilas and Digger Phelps both said they wouldn’t be surprised if SU won the region and advanced to the Final Four in Houston. “I think Syracuse is the one team that’s most dangerous in the entire bracket,” Bilas said.
But first the Orange will have to take care of business against 14th-seeded Indiana State, which is making its first tournament appearance since 2001 and just its fourth in school history. The Sycamores reached their only Final Four in 1979, when Bird carried them to the championship game before losing to Magic Johnson and Michigan State.
Several SU players had the same reaction after the bracket was announced: Indiana State is where Bird went to college, so the Sycamores must be able to shoot because Bird was a dead-eye shooter. The Sycamores (20-13), who earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, ranked fifth in the 10-team conference in shooting percentage (.430) and second in three-point shooting percentage (.363). They’ll have to knock down a lot of threes over Syracuse’s zone if they want to upset the Orange.
To reach its third consecutive Sweet 16, the Orange will have to get past No. 6-seed Xavier (24-7) or No. 11 Marquette (20-14). Xavier, located in Cincinnati, won the Atlantic 10 regular-season title before losing to Dayton in the quarterfinals. The Golden Eagles downed the Orange 76-70 on Jan. 29 at Marquette. It was SU’s fourth consecutive loss—a streak that ended with a win at Connecticut four days later.
It would be unusual for two teams from the same conference to meet so early in the NCAA Tournament, but it had to happen somewhere because the Big East has a record 11 teams in the Big Dance. “I think that we found our identity against a team like Marquette,” SU guard Scoop Jardine said. “Even though we lost the game, I think we played really good basketball. It would be great to see those guys again—we owe them one.”
The Orange had better luck the second time around during the Big East season. Of the teams it played twice, SU defeated Villanova and Georgetown the second time after losing to them the first time. “We’re excited,” Orange forward Kris Joseph said. “We have a chance to do something big.”
The game will be broadcast on Tru TV (Verizon Channel 183; Time Warner Channel 52) with an approximate start time of 9:47 p.m.
Defense mechanism: Syracuse University’s tough-to-beat zone defense—as well as Big East Defensive Player of the Year Rick Jackson—could give the Orangemen an edge in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. They tip against Indiana State Friday, March 18, at approximately 9:45 p.m.