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Be honest. If someone told you back in November that the Syracuse University men’s basketball team would enter the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed with a 27-5 record, you would have said, “I’ll take it.”
But not all No. 3 seeds and 27-5 records are created equal. If someone told you on Feb. 15 that the Orange would enter the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed with a 27-5 record, you would have asked, “What happened?”
So now that SU is entering the NCAA Tournament as the No. 3 seed in the South Region with a 27-5 record, how do you feel about it? Probably a lot like CBS Sports college basketball analyst Doug Gottlieb.
“Which Syracuse is going to show up?” Gottlieb asked on CBS’ March 16 NCAA Tournament selection show. “The one over the last month, or the one over the previous four months?”
The Orange will answer that question Thursday, March 20, 2:45 p.m., when it faces No. 14-seed Western Michigan (23-9) in its first NCAA Tournament game at Buffalo’s First Niagara Center. If Syracuse beats the Broncos, it will face the winner of No. 6 Ohio State and No. 11 Dayton in the round of 32 on Saturday, March 22, in Buffalo.
Despite relying on a freshman point guard (Tyler Ennis) and two other new starters (guard Trevor Cooney and forward Jerami Grant), the Orange surprised everyone by winning its first 25 games and being ranked No. 1 in the nation for three consecutive weeks. But SU enters the NCAA Tournament having dropped five of its last seven games, including the Friday, March 14, head-scratching 66-63 loss to North Carolina State in its first-ever Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament game.
“We’re right where we should be, the No. 3 seed,” SU senior forward C.J. Fair said. “We had a great year this year. We had a little losing streak toward the end of the season, but overall this season was a success, as far as the regular season. Going into the tournament you’ve got to just keep fighting and make that one last push.”
As the Orange prepares for its 37th NCAA Tournament appearance and 31st under Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim, here are three reasons why you should be worried and three reasons why you should be optimistic:
1. The Orange has not played back-to-back strong games in nearly a month. Had the Orange not pulled off miracle finishes against Pittsburgh and North Carolina State in mid-February, SU would be looking at losses in seven of its final nine games.
“We’ve struggled against everybody. It’s not like we’ve put anyone away,” Boeheim said. “We won, but they were hard wins. You see that scenario for us. We’re not overpowering anybody. I think that’s just the way the tournament is going to be.”
2. Not coincidentally, SU’s offense has struggled since mid-February. The Orange shot a season-low 32 percent against NC State in the ACC Tournament, and the Orange ranked 10th in the 15-team ACC in scoring, field goal percentage and 3-point shooting percentage.
3. Friday’s loss to NC State was particularly demoralizing because of the way it ended: The Orange missed six shots in 22 seconds in its final possession and with a chance to tie the game.
1. The Orange is 11-3 on road/neutral courts, 7-2 against the RPI top 50, and 15-3 against the RPI top 100. And on March 9, SU played what Boeheim called his team’s “best game of the year” in a 74-58 rout of Florida State.
“We played a tremendous game against Florida State less than a week ago, so I am confident we will play well,” Boeheim said Sunday, March 16. “We played well for the most part against NC State. We shot the ball poorly, and when that happens it happens.”
2. SU is back at full strength now that Grant has recovered from his back injury. Grant, who had 19 points and 10 rebounds against NC State, missed SU’s losses to Virginia and Georgia Tech and sat out the second half of a close win at Maryland.
3. The Orange’s 2-3 zone defense has been solid all season, and the Orange get to open the NCAA Tournament against a turnover-prone Western Michigan team and then perhaps an offensively challenged Ohio State team that will likely struggle against the zone.
“Our offense isn’t going to be there every night, and our defense is our advantage,” Fair said. “If we play the defense we’re capable of playing, I think we can make another Final Four run and build from there.”
Western Michigan clinched a trip to the NCAA Tournament by walloping Toledo 98-77 Saturday, March 15, in the championship game of the Mid-American Conference Tournament. The Broncos’ leading scorer is senior guard David Brown (19.4 points per game), the MAC Tournament MVP.
The Broncos will be making their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 2004. The Orange is 60-37 in tournament play and advanced to its fifth Final Four last season.
For most of this season, SU appeared to be a lock for a No. 1 seed in the East, meaning it would have played in New York City if it advanced to the Sweet 16. But now, if it wins two games in Buffalo, the Orange will have to travel to Memphis for the South Region finals. If the top seeds advance, SU would face No. 2 seed Kansas and then No. 1 overall seed Florida in Memphis.
“This is what you play for. It’s just not that easy to get in there,” Boeheim said. “And once you get in there, it’s not easy. That’s what makes it interesting and challenging.
“It’s something you look forward to every year,” Boeheim added. “You just want to be there and have that opportunity. In college basketball, anybody that has an opportunity can win. It’s the way I look at it.”
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