The Syracuse Orange, top seed in the East region, play game one in what they hope will be a run to New Orleans Thursday against 16 seed UNC Asheville. The game is at approximately 3:10 p.m. on Tru-TV with Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller, and Marty Snider (side line annoyer) on the call. It will be Syracuse's fourth-ever tourney game as a one seed since expansion (2-1).
A quick jinx/reverse jinx reminder; A 1 seed has never lost to a 16 seed. For the record, however, I'll point out that one seeds like Georgetown (1989 against Princeton), Michigan State (1990 against Murray State, a game that went to overtime), and Purdue (1996 against Western Carolina) each struggled in their opening game as a top seed. Many other one seeds have struggled for much of the game before winning comfortably. If you're a baseball fan who hates this whole new wave 'sabermetrics' thingy, you probably feel a 16 is due. Well, you're wrong. Still, let's breakdown the Bulldogs so it looks like we aren't looking past them.
Overview- The Bulldogs (24-9, 16-2 in Big South) won their conference tourney, like every 16 seed ever, to qualify for the Big Dance. Ashevile (we can drop the UNC from here on out, right?) isn't exactly ITT Tech though. The Bulldogs have won 20 of their last 25 games. Granted, we're talking Big South competition (with non-conference close-ish losses to both UNC and NC State), but still, since the calender flipped to 2012 Asheville has only lost 3 times! Asheville does have experience in winning a tournament game too. A worthless 16 seed v. 16 seed play-in game last season. They advanced to lose a closer than it probably should have been, rather boring game to top seed Pittsburgh.
Strength- The Bulldogs winning ways can be most attributed to their running. Asheville gets up and done the floor and they score, averaging 81.2 points per as a team (5th best in the country) with a guard first offense that shoot 48.4 percent from inside 22 feet. In fact, when the Bulldogs hit 80 on the score board they're 16-0 on the season. Four starters, Matt Dickey (16.5 ppg), J.P. Primm (15.3), Chris Stephenson (13.1), and Jeremy Atkinson (11.7) are in the top 25 in scoring in the Big South. Not to mention sixth man Jaron Lane who averages 11.3 per game. A major reason why the Bulldogs score so much is because they force steals. As a team Asheville forces nearly 9 steals a game which leads to fastbreak points. Thanks to the steals and running, the Bulldogs actually rank in the top 10 in the country in assists per game (16.6). This team also hits their free throws, so if it does get close, that could be an issue.
Weakness(es)- You know how, usually without fail, Syracuse seems to open up tourney play against a scrappy underdog who can shoot the ball? That's not the case this year. Asheville isn't exactly horrible from distance, but they're not too far removed from horrible. At 35.2 percent, the Bulldogs are pretty similar to Syracuse (34.5 percent) at shooting the long ball. This is a team that likes to create points in a hurry and usually closer to the rim.
Another weak area for Asheville is rebounding. Syracuse's averages about one more rebound per game than the Bulldogs. Playing three guards who stand around six foot 2 makes it difficult to grab loose rebounds in the paint. Without question, Syracuse has a major advantage in the size department. Of course, the Orange have struggled on the boards all year despite having the size of an NBA team, so this all may be a moot point.
Key Player(s)- Having watched this team only a handful of times this season, most of the games within the last month, I'm certainly not an expert. However, Dickey and Primm seem to be the heart to the Bulldogs. Dickey, Big South Player of the Year, is a six foot one senior guard with plenty of skill. Shooting over 46 percent from the field, Dickey also hits at 38 percent from three. Plus, he is second on the team in assists and steals. Primm, for his part, actually leads in assists and steals. These two, along with Lane and Stephenson, will either challenge Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche and force Jardine and Triche style turnovers, or Dickey and Primm will be shut down by Syracuse's zone and 2-3 zone.
Outlook- This certainly reads like Asheville is a top 25 team waiting to hang with Syracuse, doesn't it? They have experience (3 senior starters) and the Bulldogs have talent. But there's a reason SU is a top seed and Asheville is a 16. Actually, I think Asheville could be a perfect opponent for the Orange to open with, especially after getting, as Jim Boeheim said Sunday, 'slapped in the face' by Cincinnati in the Big East tournament. First, we all know SU loves to score in bunches. That's usually when the Orange, with Jardine, Triche, or Dion Waiters, are getting out and running. The Bulldogs aren't going to change what they did to get here, so their style of movement should play right into what Syracuse wants to do. A major advantage with the Orange's stagnant half court offense right now.
Another key for Syracuse is the height factor. Again, the Orange have had this advantage all year and rarely used it, but this game represents an opportunity for Fab Melo and C.J. Fair, maybe even Rak Christmas, to get some boards and block some shots. Even Kris Joseph stand four or five inches taller than anyone guarding him. That can only help in terms of positive momentum moving forward in the tournament, especially if the Orange see a tough rebounding team like Kansas State. Plus, this game is in Pittsburgh which should be a major advantage for Syracuse (insert home game on the road joke here.)
In the end Syracuse should win by somewhere around 20 points. Maybe a little more, maybe a little less, but a comfortable win none the less. From there, it will get tougher. We've all heard or read that SU isn't exactly a favorite to make it to the Final Four. Despite the record, ranking, and seed the Orange are, for some reason not clear to me, considered a weak top seed. Obviously, I don't see it that way. The East looks primed for SU to do what they've done all year. Play physical, sometimes ugly, and get wins. There's not a team in the region, or the enter tourney, that SU can't beat. The first of what may very will be six more wins should come against the speedy Bulldogs.