Syracuse? Connecticut? Villanova? What is this, a Big East glory days reunion?
Three programs that met on a regular basis before this season’s parting of the ways will descend upon the First Niagara Center for Thursday’s second round of the NCAA Tournament. With Villanova and UConn on a collision course, no more than two of them will make it out of town alive.
The three former rivals in what had been one of the nation’s storied conferences headline the draw as the NCAA Tournament returns here for the first time since 2010. Second- and third-round games will be played on Thursday and Saturday at times to be determined. End balcony tickets still remained Sunday night three hours after the eight Buffalo-bound teams were announced.
Some national bracketologists had Syracuse bypassing Buffalo for a distant placement when it lost five of the last seven following a 25-0 run to start the season. The Orange avoided falling out of the state but did pay a price. They’ve been placed in the South Region with No. 1 overall seed Florida and will head to Memphis, Tenn., instead of Madison Square Garden if they advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
The 27-5 Orange open against a team that’s already made a trip to Buffalo this year. Western Michigan (23-9) hardly looked NCAA-worthy when it was thwacked by UB, 84-63, Jan. 29 in Alumni Arena. The Broncos rebounded by winning 12 of their last 13 and avenged that lone defeat (in OT to Toledo) by blowing out the Rockets, 98-77, in Saturday’s Mid-American Conference championship game.
WMU has size and also at least a cursory familiarity with Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone. Former Orange assistant Rob Murphy utilizes a similar defense at Eastern Michigan. It stymied the Broncos in the first meeting (EMU, 56-37) but not in the second (WMU, 75-67).
Syracuse and WMU are scheduled for 2:45 p.m. Thursday. The survivor gets the winner of Ohio State-Dayton (12:15 p.m.), two universities separated by a 70-mile drive on I-70. The Buckeyes lead the series, 6-3, after a 74-63 win over the Flyers in the quarterfinals of the 2008 NIT.
For the first time in five years, Ohio State enters the field below a No. 2 seed. The Buckeyes (25-9) are slotted No. 6 in the South Region after losing to arch rival Michigan, 72-69, in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
It looked like Dayton (23-10) might be destined for a first-round game in its own arena – if the Flyers even made the field as the sixth team out of the Atlantic 10. The plot thickened when Dayton fell to Saint Joseph’s in the quarterfinals of the A-10 Tournament but the Selection Committee deemed 10 wins over the last 12 games, an RPI of 43 and victories over NCAA Tournament teams Gonzaga, UMass, and Saint Louis warranted clear-cut inclusion.
Villanova (28-4) was on course for a No. 1 seeding until eighth-place Seton Hall shocked the Wildcats, 64-63, in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament. Instead, Villanova was slotted No. 2 in the East and opens against Milwaukee, the surprise winner of the Horizon League. They will tip off around 9:25 p.m.
There could hardly be more balance among Villanova’s top three scorers. Senior guard James Bell and juniors Darrun Hilliard II and JayVaughn Pinkston average between 14.2 and 14.5 points per game for a deep team that counts tournament-bound Kansas, Iowa, Saint Joseph’s, Xavier and Providence among its conquests. The losses before Seton Hall: Syracuse and twice to Creighton.
Milwaukee (21-13) secured the Horizon League bid with a stirring postseason run that included a dramatic semifinal overtime win over regular-season champion Wisconsin-Green Bay, a team seven games better than the Panthers during the conference regular season. Milwaukee rallied from four down inside the last minute to force overtime, won by seven, then triumphed over Wright State in the title game.
The Villanova-Milwaukee winner gets a third-round date with either UConn, the No. 7 seed in the East, or No. 10 Saint Joseph’s, who meet at 6:55 p.m. Both are riding some momentum. UConn won nine of its last 12 with two of the losses coming to defending national champion Louisville, a team that played as well as anyone down the stretch. The Huskies (26-8) are led by American Athletic Conference Player of the Year Shabazz Napier, one of the more dynamic players in the nation.
Saint Joseph’s entered the Atlantic 10 Tournament on the NCAA bubble but erased all doubt with its first conference tournament title in 17 years. The Hawks bounced back from two regular season-ending losses to edge Dayton in the A-10 quarterfinals and rout St. Bonaventure in the semis before squeaking past 23rd-ranked VCU, 65-61, in Sunday’s title game. What they don’t have is much in the way of depth. All five starters played at least 35 minutes against Dayton and at least 37 minutes against VCU.
Meanwhile, the University at Buffalo had said after the Mid-American Conference tournament that it would only accept a bid to the National Invitation Tournament. None was forthcoming on Sunday, so its season is over. The Bulls finished 19-10.