College basketball: Orange poised to become color of Sweet 16 in SLC
You might not have heard of Wes Johnson, Andy Rautins and Scoop Jardine just yet.
But give it a minute.
By the time the orange-clad members of the Syracuse University men's basketball team leave the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament that will be played at EnergySolutions Arena this week, they could be well on their way to winning a storybook national championship.
The Orange -- yes, that's their nickname -- were not even ranked in the polls to start the season, yet ascended to No. 1 before losing their last two games prior to the tournament. Now, they have become a fashionable choice as the new tourney favorite, as they prepare to descend on Salt Lake City for the West Regional finals, along with hopeful teams from Xavier, Butler and Kansas State.
"This is different from football," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "We find out in this tournament who the best teams really are."
Suddenly, the 30-4 Orange have that look.
In a tournament that began with 65 teams all hoping for a bit of "March Madness" magic, they have reached the final 16 with dominating performances in their first two games, victories over Vermont and Gonzaga.
The 6-foot-7 Johnson and his court-brightening smile have been all but unstoppable -- many now view him as a top-five pick in the NBA Draft in April -- injured center Arinze Onuaku could return to the lineup against Butler on Thursday, and many of the thousands of fans who watched the Orange play in Buffalo might find their way to Utah.
"Honestly, I think they are going to be at Salt Lake, too," Jardine said. "They just come out and support us. ... We have the best fans in the country."
Hardly the only ones, though.
Fans of Xavier, Butler and Kansas State all are hoping their team can be the one to emerge from the regional final and reach the Final Four.
While Syracuse and Kansas State each have done that four previous times -- the Orange won the 2003 championship, after losing the title game in 1987 and 1996 -- neither Butler nor Xavier has made it that far. Both are generally considered "mid-major" teams, outside the power structure of major college basketball.
Yet the 30-4 Bulldogs of Butler are playing in the Sweet 16 for the third time in the last eight seasons, armed with a 22-game winning streak -- the longest in the nation -- and a balanced team that relies on fierce defense. The 26-8 Musketeers are in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in the last seven seasons, and feature sophomore guard Jordan Crawford, a 20-point scorer who became famous last summer when footage of his dunk on NBA star LeBron James reached the Internet.
Meanwhile, the 28-7 KSU Wildcats are enjoying their deepest tournament run since 1988, having ended Brigham Young's season in the second round behind star guard Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente. They have outlasted powerful rival Kansas in the tournament for the first time in 29 years.
"K-State basketball is back on the map," forward Dominique Sutton said.
Never really left.
Though they had a couple of lean years, by their high standards, and early tournament exits since Carmelo Anthony -- now playing for the Denver Nuggets -- led them to the title seven years ago, they remain one of the premier programs in college basketball. Syracuse also is the best remaining hope for the Big East Conference, whose highly rated teams mostly have flamed out of the tourney so far.
"They are as good a team as there is in the country," Butler coach Brad Stevens said.
"If they shoot it like they did today," Gonzaga's Mark Few said after losing badly to the Orange in the second round, "nobody will beat them."
At EnergySolutions Arena, Thursday
No. 1 Syracuse vs. No. 5 Butler, 5:07 p.m.
No. 2 Kansas State vs. No. 6 Xavier, 7:37 p.m.
TV: Ch. 2