Syracuse meets Western Michigan in second round of NCAA tournament

How do the No. 3 Orange stack up against the No. 14 Broncos?

Just two and a half hours west of Syracuse and the Carrier Dome, No. 3 Syracuse will take on No. 14 Western Michigan Thursday in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Despite the gap in seeding, the two teams come into the tournament going in the completely opposite directions. SU has lost five of its last seven, including an early exit in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament, while Western Michigan has won 12 of its last 13, including a 98-77 victory over Toledo in the Mid-American Conference championship.

One big advantage the Orange has over the Broncos is tournament experience. This year marks Syracuse’s 37th appearance in the NCAA tournament, whereas Western Michigan is making its fourth appearance, the last coming in 2004. The Orange is also more battle-tested than the Broncos. Western Michigan’s most notable victory came against New Mexico State, a 13 seed in the West region on Nov. 9, while Syracuse has racked up wins against Duke, Villanova, North Carolina and Baylor.

“It helps us a lot having experience,” senior forward C.J. Fair said after hearing SU’s draw Sunday night. “Guys have been on the big stage before. They know how to conduct and handle themselves. There’s not going to be any surprises.”

The one area where the Broncos have an advantage over the Orange is at center. Shayne Whittington, a 6-foot-11 redshirt senior from Paw Paw, Mich., is a force for WMU in the paint. Whittington leads the team with 9.1 rebounds-per-game and 1.6 blocks-per-game. He is also second on the team in scoring with 16.3 points-per-game. Whittington will be matched up with 6-foot-9 Rakeem Christmas for the Orange. While Christmas isn’t as prolific a shooter as Whittington, his defensive presence in the 2-3 zone should at least mitigate Whittington’s offensive production, especially since Christmas averages 1.9 blocks-per-game.

David Brown leads the Broncos in scoring on the year, averaging 19.4 points-per-game. Brown has the ability to take over games for WMU, as he shot 9-of-16 for 32 points in the Broncos' win over Toledo.

Syracuse is slightly better at every statistic across the board, but the biggest issue the Orange need to exploit is the Broncos' propensity for turnovers. WMU averages 14.1 turnovers per game and allows 7.2 steals per game. These are two areas Syracuse excels at on defense, as the Orange force 13.4 turnovers per game and steal the ball eight times each game.

The biggest issue for the Orange, as it’s been since Syracuse beat Duke Feb. 1, is its offense. Since the 91-89 victory at the Dome, SU has averaged 60.3 points-per-game, down eight points from its season average. Luckily, the Orange also allowed only 59.9 points-per-game, so keeping that average will be crucial if the Syracuse wants to have a chance at either Ohio State or Dayton in the third round Saturday. 

Fair agreed that the key to SU’s success is in its defense.

“Our offense isn’t going to be there every night and our defense is our advantage,” he said. “If we play the defense we’re capable of playing I think we can make another Final Four run and build from there.”

Getting Fair hot is another concern Syracuse needs to address in order to win. During the losing slide at the end of the year, Fair shot poorly, hitting 70-of-175 field goal attempts for a 40 percent shooting percentage during the last 11 games. If Fair lives up to his 16.7 points-per-game, 6.2 rebounds-per-game stat line, SU has a chance to make a much deeper run. Combining Fair with guard Tyler Ennis (12.7 points-per-game, 5.6 assists-per-game) and forward Jerami Grant (12.2 points-per-game, 6.9 rebounds-per-game) leaves Syracuse and head coach Jim Boeheim with a solid core of scorers.

“I am as confident of this team going into this tournament right now as I was last year of the team,” Boeheim said.

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