NCAA men's Sweet 16: Syracuse has obstacles, 1-seed isn't among them
The only other time this season that Syracuse had a "1" next to its name was early March. Then the Orange lost by 10 to unranked Louisville.
Syracuse choked away its stranglehold on the No. 1 regular season ranking after holding it for just two games.
Now, the Orange find themselves the No. 1 seed in the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament and Thursday at Energy Solutions Arena will have a similar bullseye on their back when they play Butler, a fift-seed that beat UTEP and Murray State to earn a ticket to Salt Lake.
This time, the Orange would like to stay No. 1 the rest of the year.
"The pressure of the No. 1 seed is there," said Wes Johnson, Syracuse's Naismith Award finalist. "But we don't try to look too far into that, it's really just going out and playing our basketball."
Their basketball is trapping zone defense, of which coach Jim Boeheim is college basketball's grand master, and fast breaks. Syracuse breezed through the opening rounds, beating Vermont by 23 and Gonzaga by 22.
The challenge of the zone, however, is one that appeals to Butler. The Bulldogs shot a combined 51 three-pointers in their first two games and made 20 of them.
"When I hear the name Butler, I think they got a lot of great shooters on their team," said Johnson, who scored 31 points against Gonzaga on March 18.
The problem is, zone defenses typically create opportunities for teams loaded with sharpshooters, something Boeheim is cognizant of, but also one he thinks can be overcome by an especially good zone -- like he hopes his Orange will play Thursday.
"Any defense can be beat," he said. "The best defensive teams in the country get beat all the time. We try to do some different things in our zone. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't."
The Orange are one of two Big East teams remaining in the tournament -- the other is West Virginia -- after eight qualified. A potential obstacle for the Orange, one that could contribute to a premature exit, is the absence of 6-foot, 9-inch center Arinze Onuaku. He will miss his third tournament game Thursday with a quadriceps injury, Boeheim announced.
"He's doing better, but he's not practicing," Boeheim said. "Will not play. "
Onuaku averaged 10 points and five rebounds per game this season. Without him, forward Rick Jackson is playing center, leaving the Orange with Johnson and reserve Kris Joseph as the remaining capable forwards.
"That's the position that would concern me in terms of foul trouble," Boeheim said.
Offensively, the Orange are led by Johnson's 16.5 points per game, but guard Andy Rautins averages scored 24 points with five 3-pointers against Gonzaga, but also dropped 10 assists in each of the first two games.
"We have so many weapons offensively, I think that takes care of itself," Rautins said. He said, "I think our main key is going to be to work on defense."
From » Syracuse, N.Y.
Record » 30-4, 15-3 Big East Conference
History » The Orange are ranked fifth in the NCAA for all-time wins, but their only championship came in 2003 behind Carmelo Anthony.
Coach » Jim Boeheim, 829-292 (all at Syracuse)
» Wes Johnson: Johnson leads the Orange with 16.5 points per game and is one of four finalists for the Naismith Award. A talented junior swingman who transferred from Iowa State before last season, Johnson netted 31 points against Gonzaga last week in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. When Johnson leads, Syracuse follows -- usually to a win.
» Andy Rautins: A sharpshooting guard, Rautins also heads the Syracuse defense. The senior is at the top of the Orange's smothering zone defense. He will need to be active against Butler to keep the Bulldogs from shooting over Syracuse.
» Rick Jackson: Jackson has started every game this season, but has taken on a new role in the NCAA Tournament: center. With Arinze Onuaku out for at least Thursday's game with an injured quad, Jackson becomes that much more valuable. The lineup shift, however, leaves Syracuse vulnerable at power forward, coach Jim Boeheim said.
Key wins » Feb. 27: Syracuse 95, Villanova 77, Cinched share of Big East title and elevated the Orange to a brief stint as No. 1 in the country; March 21, Syracuse 87, Gonzaga 65: The Orange fell behind early, but responded to earn their 19th all-time Sweet 16 bid.
Season-defining moment » The Orange knocked off No. 13 California by 22 points on Nov. 19 and the next night beat No. 6 North Carolina by 16 to win the 2K Sports Classic in New York City. For the Orange, unranked in preseason rankings, the back-to-back victories were the first glimpse at how good they would turn out to be.
Outlook » As the 1-seed, Syracuse comes into the West Regional as the de facto favorite. To get to their first Final Four since 2003, however, the Orange must overcome not only fifth-seeded Butler and either Kansas State or Xavier, but also whatever was responsible for six of the seven other Big East teams already losing in the tournament.