A month ago any suggestion that Syracuse might be tested right out of the gate in the NCAAs carried all the weight of a Q-tip. The Orange were 25-0 and topped the national rankings. A No. 1 seeding seemed assured no matter if they slipped a time or two or three. But it became worse than that. The ’Cuse went into free fall, dropping five of its last seven including its ACC Tournament opener. The result: a No. 3 seed and a second-round game with red-hot Western Michigan that looms as something more challenging than a tap-in for par. The Broncos have won 12 of 13 and dismantled 27-win Toledo in the Mid-American Conference final. They have a familiarity with the vaunted Syracuse zone because former Jim Boeheim assistant Rob Murphy employs his version at Eastern Michigan. NBA scouts have been on the trail of center Shayne Whittington, a 6-foot-11 senior. For the ’Cuse this isn’t like opening against Albany.
How can a team that ranks ninth nationally in scoring defense (59.5 points a game) and 21st in steals hit the skids in such resounding fashion? For the answers we have to think outside the arc. In the five losses covering Syracuse has seen opponents shoot 35 of 85 (41.1 percent) from three while the Orange made just 18 of 77 (23.4 percent). And those cracks in the perimeter defense have opened the interior as well. Opponents shot 46.8 percent in those five Syracuse losses. The ’Cuse has to do a better job covering the outer reaches, and particular WMU guard David Brown, to keep the Broncos from settling into an upset frame of mind. On the offensive end, 6-foot-8 C.J. Fair, a first-team all-ACC pick, represents a matchup nightmare.
When it’s firing Western Michigan is dangerous, but the Broncos can’t afford to fall behind in this game by 18 points, as they did before rallying to beat Akron in the MAC semifinals. WMU faced a similar zone defense twice this season against Eastern Michigan. The results? A sorry 12-of-42 shooting performance the first time followed by an improved 18-for-44 effort in the rematch. Guard David Brown is key to WMU’s chances here. He averages 19.4 a game (31st in country) and has to get it going from the outside for WMU to hang tight. But the Broncos have other weapons as well, notably 6-11 all-MAC center Shayne Whittingham and savvy sophomore forward Connar Tava.
Outlook: If WMU keeps this one close, look for Syracuse to unleash the zone trap press that rescued the N.C. State game at the Carrier Dome. But will it come to that? Prediction: Syracuse 71, WMU 57
Tipoff: 2:45 Thursday • First Niagara Center • TV: Ch. 4 • Radio: 1520