A Blessing in Disguise

No. 1-seed Syracuse falls to West Region, lucks out with easiest path to Indy.

Syracuse was cheated.

That was the consensus when the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament bracket revealed Syracuse had dropped to the fourth one-seed behind ACC regular season and tournament champion Duke.

 The Orange (28-4, 15-4 Big East) bid an early farewell from the Big East Tournament Thursday in Madison Square Garden, a venue it normally flourishes in. Riding a two-game losing streak to close out the year and with starting center Arinze Onuaku listed as day-to-day with a right quad injury suffered against Georgetown in the quarterfinals, Syracuse left ajar the opportunity for the selection committee to bump the team off its perch.

The committee did penalize SU Sunday by sending the Orange out west. But Syracuse is saying thanks for that backhanded reward. Lo and behold, the committee recompensed the coldest one-seed in the field and only top dog to lose in its conference tournament with the easiest region.

Syracuse was not swindled. Spare the pity pleas. Kansas, the number overall seed in the tournament illogically placed in the field’s toughest region, ought to be the one screaming foul.

The Orange lucked out with the second easiest 8/9 pairing in the field. No. 8 Gonzaga out of the West Coast Conference is a strong perimeter team, shooting at a 36% clip from behind the arc. But while senior leader Matt Bouldin and freshman sensation Elias Harris (47% three-point shooter) can be a threat to the zone from outside, the Bulldogs don’t have enough of an interior presence to collapse and frustrate the base of the zone.

No. 9 Florida State is the nation’s best defensive team in defensive efficiency and atop the ACC in the field goal percentage against. The Seminoles feature one of the nation’s toughest frontcourts headed by sophomore standout Solomon Alabi. But Alabi and frontcourt mate Chris Singleton will not be enough to offset the offensive lulls the Seminoles have endured throughout the year and the lack of an outside scorer to keep the top of the zone honest. The lack of offensive balance for both Gonzaga and Florida State makes either matchup auspicious for Syracuse. With or without Onuaku, the Orange rolls on.

The path to Indy hits the thruway as the Orange travels from Buffalo to Salt Lake City for a date with any one of Butler, UTEP, Vanderbilt and Murray State. The West Region features the two weakest four and five seeds, respectively. No. 4 Vanderbilt is a product of a weak SEC. In the out of conference portion of the schedule, the Commodores lone quality win came in a two-point nail-biter against St. Mary’s. Star big man AJ Ogilvy gives Vanderbilt a strong inside presence and guard Jermaine Beal can stroke it from outside, but both players are too inconsistent to win three straight games in the tournament. Unless swingman Jeffery Taylor can buttress the load on his own, the Commodores are primed for a first round upset against tournament sleeper Murray State (OVC).

No. 5 Butler is susceptible to the 12-over-5 upset. The Bulldogs ended the year on a national-best twenty-game win streak, but the Bulldogs played the nation’s 77th best schedule and capitalized on a very weak Horizon Conference. Look for Butler to drop its opening round contest to CUSA power UTEP, the most dangerous 12-seed in the field. The skinny—Syracuse cruises with Onuaku back in the lineup over a phony mid-major Cinderella.

By the Elite Eight, Onuaku should be well immersed back into the Orange starting lineup. The bottom half of the bracket presents no team with a great big man. No. 3-seed Pittsburgh, who defeated Syracuse earlier in the year, does feature the best frontcourt of the eight teams, but the Panthers will have their hands full with Xavier, a team that has made upsets a routine in the NCAA Tournament.

No. 2-seed Kansas State has the best backcourt in the region highlighted by All-First Team Big XII members Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente, but the Wildcats are notorious tournament underachievers. K-State has not made the Sweet 16 since 1988. The Wildcats have athletic, but undersized big men led by Jamar Samuels, which could pose issues for the zone. Still look for the Wildcats to bail out before a potential showdown in the Elite Eight with Syracuse. In a field laden with feeble top seeds devoid of tournament pedigree, expect chalk to prevail in Salt Lake City. Syracuse pushes on to Indy.

The selection committee uses an S-curve formula which purportedly places the best team on one line with the worst team of the next line. By this strategy, the worst two-seed is assigned to the region with the best one seed. But because of the committee’s commitment to regional placement, which is applicable according to the chairman’s discretion, the top overall team in the tournament ended up with the toughest region while the lowest one-seed received the easiest road. An approach that was supposed to rank the regions in level of difficult from easiest to hardest—Midwest, East, South, West—produced diametrical results.

Kansas and Kentucky were the two unanimous number one seeds, yet Duke and Syracuse were given a reprieve with the two easiest regions. Before you sulk on your flight to the Mountain West, be sure to send selection committee chairman Dan Guerrero a thank you card. For an extra 800 miles roundtrip, Syracuse punched its ticket to Indianapolis.




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