After a few troubling weeks, Jim Boeheim finally had something to smile about. Syracuse (27-5) trudged into postseason play, but the selection committee didn't seem to mind. The Orange, ranked eleventh in last week's polls, earned the No. 3 seed in the South and a trip to Buffalo.
"I am as confident of this team going into this tournament right now as I was last year," Boeheim said.
As you have probably already heard, the Orange take on No. 14 Western Michigan in the
first second round. The other top seeds in SU's region include the Florida Gators, the first overall seed, as well as Kansas, UCLA and VCU.
"We’re right where we should be, the No. 3 seed," C.J. Fair said. "We had a great year this year. We had a little losing streak toward the end of the season but overall this season was a success."
Western Michigan went 24-9 this season and beat Toledo to win the Mid-American Conference championship. Watch out for the turnover totals in this game. The Broncos have an assist-to-turnover ratio of 11/14 whereas the Orange boasts an impressive 12/9 total. But WMU has an advantage over Syracuse in scoring average and field goal percentage.
"They are a very good basketball team," Boeheim said. "They won a very difficult conference and the conference tournament. We know it is a tremendous challenge for our players and our team. We are excited about it."
A common opponent for these two teams is Eastern Michigan. Syracuse beat the Eagles by 22 early in the season, whereas WMU split the two-game season series.
Both Boeheim and Fair acknowledged Syracuse's offensive struggles – 253rd in points per game, to be precise – but they say the defensive play will be the key to a championship run.
"Our defense is our advantage," Fair said. "If we play the defense we’re capable of playing, I think we can make another Final Four run and build from there."
Although the South has regional finals in Memphis, not New York City, the Orange won't have to travel very far for the first few rounds. Syracuse will start the tournament in Buffalo.
"To have a big fan base supporting you at the game is definitely exciting," Fair said. "We just have to go out there and play and give the fans something to cheer for."
But the location of the game won't matter if the team continues the poor play of the past few weeks. After losing five of seven games, Syracuse has more important things to be concerned about.
"Where you play isn't going to have as much of an affect as how you play," Boeheim said. "How you play is what really matters. We are happy to be in Buffalo, but it is just about playing. You have to play well."
The top few teams in the South may seem daunting, but Syracuse's path to Dallas may be easier than you think. Top-seeded Florida plays in a mediocre SEC conference that only got three teams in the tournament. No. 2 Kansas hasn't played well recently and Joel Embiid's health remains a major question mark moving forward. No. 4 UCLA wasn't even ranked last week before making a run through the Pac-12 Tournament.
On Sunday, Boeheim spent much of the night complimenting the selection committee. He agreed with the number of ACC teams in the field (six), the exclusion of Southern Methodist (who had a weak non-conference schedule) and the overall parity of the four regions.
"It’s as wide open of a tournament as we have had," Boeheim said. "There are a lot of difficult games right off the bat. We’ve struggled against everybody. It’s not like we’ve put anyone away. We won, but they were hard wins."
He also supported the committee's emphasis on judging a team's entire body of work, rather than just focusing on the last ten games.
Shocking, I know.
With a win, Syracuse could face Ohio State and get revenge for the Elite Eight loss from 2012. But that's not something Fair says he is thinking about. The Buckeyes are just another team in Syracuse's path back to the Final Four, he said.
"If they're in the way of that, we'll have to take them down."