After losing seven of their final 12 games, the Syracuse Orange were not heading in the right direction as the postseason began. However, a run to the Big East Championship final should give Syracuse confidence heading into the Big Dance.
Despite blowing a 16-point lead in the second half of the championship game against Louisville, there are lessons that can be learned and applied as the Orange get ready to start the NCAA tournament.
The Orange were placed in the East bracket as a fourth seed. They open play on Thursday against Montana, the champions of the Big Sky Conference.
Once considered a favorite to be a top seed in the tourney, the Orange now have a tougher road ahead of them. If they are going to compete for a national championship, there are several factors that must fall into place.
As of late, James Southerland has been the best offensive player for the Orange. After coming off the bench all season, the senior forward has started the last six games, including all four in the Big East tournament.
He lead the Orange in scoring in the first three games of the tournament and set the record for the most three-pointers made. He hit on 19-of-32 attempts from beyond the arc.
For the tournament, he averaged 15.5 points a game.
Syracuse has already shown that it's a dangerous team when Southerland is hot. Opponents have to be aware of him as a shooter and guard him on the perimeter. That opens up things for the other big men inside.
The only knock on Southerland is that he gets "three-happy" at times. In the semifinals of the Big East tournament, he fired up 10 three-pointers, hitting on four of them.
Undoubtedly each year, the NCAA tournament is won by a team that gets hot at the right time and knocks down shots.
At this moment, Southerland is feeling it. If that continues, the Orange will have a shot to surprise several teams over the next few weeks.
Everyone knows who the leaders are for the Syracuse Orange. Brandon Triche, Michael Carter-Williams and C.J. Fair will all need to play important roles in whatever success the Orange find in the NCAA tournament.
Syracuse relies heavily on its starters to score the majority of the points.
However, to make a long run in March, teams often need production from surprise sources.
In the Big East tournament, the Orange got some big games out of some rather unfamiliar players. In the 58-55 overtime upset of the No. 5 Georgetown Hoyas, two out of three Syracuse bench players reached double digits.
Baye Moussa Keita, the 6'10" backup center who's known mainly for his defense, had a spectacular game against the Hoyas. The junior grabbed eight rebounds and tied for the team high in points with 13. For the year, Keita averages just 3.6 points per game.
In the final game against Louisville, he scored eight points and added seven rebounds.
Redshirt freshman Trevor Cooney, who has had a disappointing season thus far, came up in a big way in the first half against Georgetown. The guard played important minutes when Brandon Triche got into foul trouble early and scored 10 first-half points.
If the Orange hope to make a magical run at another national championship, someone under the radar is going to have to come up big.
Syracuse landed in the East Region for the 2012 NCAA tournament. While the region includes some stiff competition, such as Indiana and Miami, there are also some surprise teams that will make it difficult for the Orange to advance.
Their first game against Montana could be a trap, as the Grizzlies shoot the ball very well, especially from the outside. It's no secret that good outside shooting is the key to beating the 2-3 zone.
If 'Cuse is able to get through the first game, another tough matchup would be waiting in the likely form of UNLV. The Rebels are a fifth seed and are ranked sixth in the nation in rebounding. That game would be a great battle of two solid frontcourts.
Looking beyond the rounds of 64 and 32, the high-seeded teams like Indiana, Marquette and Miami are expected to be there. Once the tournament gets into those final rounds, anything is possible. Even if some of those top teams are upset, things still won't be easy for the Orange.
Temple and Marquette already beat Syracuse this year, and Butler is always a tough out come tournament time.
It will be easy for the Orange to look ahead to the Sweet Sixteen as a fourth seed. However, that matchup won't happen if Syracuse is not able to win the games that it should in the early rounds.
Michael Carter-Williams has had a breakout sophomore season that has made him one of the top point guards in the Big East. In fact, when he's on top of his game, Carter-Williams could be considered one of the best in the nation.
For the season, he is averaging 12 points per game and 7.7 assists per game.
Unfortunately for he and the Orange, things don't always click. Carter-Williams has struggled with consistency lately, taking poor shots and making mental mistakes. Bad turnovers and missed foul shots late in games have proven costly over the past few weeks.
During four games in the Big East tournament, he had games of six, 11, three and 11 points scored, respectively. He also committed 17 total turnovers in the four games.
Carter-Williams is a big part of the Orange offense, as everything runs through him.
His ability to spread the ball around makes him a valuable point guard. However, he needs to limit the mistakes moving forward in the tournament.
Syracuse has not been a good three-point shooting team this season. The Orange are ranked 206th in the nation, shooting 33.4 percent from long range. However, things changed during the Orange's time in New York City at the Big East tournament.
During the tournament, the Orange shot 50 percent from beyond the arc, making 37 of 74 shots. James Southerland led the team from long range, but Trevor Cooney and C.J. Fair also contributed from the outside.
Poor three-point shooting was one of the factors for the slump that Syracuse finished the regular season in. The Orange continued to fire up three-pointers despite failing to convert. Knocking down shots from the outside proved a key in recent victories.
If the Orange can keep this recent trend going, they will be very tough in the NCAA tournament.
Make your picks for the 2013 NCAA Tournament here with the Bracket Challenge Game