The Big East tournament ended abruptly and the Syracuse Orange entered the NCAA tournament on a two-game slide. It was the first time this season the Orange dropped a pair of games in a row, and the first time since Feb. 7 and 11, 2009 when they dropped a home game to Villanova followed by a loss to the top-ranked Connecticut Huskies on the road. The biggest concern, however, wasn’t the two game slump, but the senior center, Arinze Onauku’s, right quad. Onauku suffered the injury late in the Big East Conference quarterfinal loss to Georgetown.
The first question was the big man’s health, of course, but the more stunning one was if the Orange would be a number one seed come selection day. Apparently, if you struggle in a pair of meaningless games at the end of the year, it washes out a season in which you go 28-4 and win the toughest conference in the nation outright. The Orange got the number one seed, but only the fourth and final number one seed. Orange nation wasn’t thrilled with this, but let’s break it down. Syracuse got the fourth number one seed and got to play its opening round games in Buffalo, which is a short drive up I-90 from the Carrier Dome. If the Orange and Duke Blue Devils switched brackets, the Orange would have played in Jacksonville, which is a long way from the Orange diehards.
In Buffalo, the Orange slaughtered the Vermont Catamounts, 79-56, exorcised those demons from 2005 when T.J. Sorrentine buried a deep 3-pointer and the Orange in one shot. Next, the Orange took on a Gonzaga team poised to play Cinderella yet again in March. But sometimes in life the slipper just doesn’t fit, as the Orange clicked on all cylinders, putting the Bulldogs away with ease, 87-65. Through two games in the tournament the Orange are shooting 54.9 percent from the field and an unfathomable 46.8 percent from behind the arc. Syracuse is grabbing 35 rebounds and averaging 20.5 assists per game. On the defensive side, the 2-3 zone has been tougher to solve then a Rubik’s cube as they have held opponents to 38 percent from the field and just 18.6 percent from downtown.
With the pair of wins, the Orange return to the Sweet 16 for the second straight season and for the 14th time in Jim Boeheim’s career. The Orange will once again be missing center, Arinze Onauku. Awaiting them in Salt Lake City will be the 30-4 Butler Bulldogs, the Horizon League champions. The Bulldogs have four players who average in double figures including 6 foot 9 inch sophomore, Gordon Hayward. Hayward averages 15.2 points and grabs 8.3 rebounds per game. Hayward could cause all sorts of problems inside if Rick Jackson gets into foul trouble. Shelvin Mack adds another 14 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game and shoots 40 percent from long distance. The last time the Orange and Bulldogs met was March 18, 2002 in the NIT tournament when the Orange held on for a 66-65 win inside the Carrier Dome. But we all remember the last time the Orange squared up with a Horizon League team when Cedric Jackson of Cleveland State heaved a fifty-footer at the buzzer to silence the Dome a year ago.
If the Orange can survive on Thursday night they will face the winner of Xavier and Kansas State on Saturday night.