At first glance, the matchup between Syracuse and Montana may not look like the NCAA tournament's most exciting game, but it could come out as one of the best in the round of 64.
The Orange enter this game on a disappointing note, having dropped the Big East conference tournament to Louisville in the finals.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies are coming in on fire, having won six games in a row. Although, against their regular-season opponents also in the tournament (Colorado State, South Dakota State and Davidson), they have yet to win a game.
Looking toward this Thursday's Big Sky vs. Big East showdown, here is all you need to know for this exciting NCAA matchup.
Game Time: Thursday, March 21, 9:57 ET
TV Schedule: truTV
Spread Info: Syracuse -13.5
Spread information from Pro Cappers
Syracuse Season Recap:
Points per game: 71.3
Opponents points per game: 60.1
It has been a season of ups and downs for Syracuse, and lately things have been down.
The program saw its high in January, with the Orange going 6-1 in the month highlighted by a 70-68 win at Louisville. Then came a treacherous February, which saw the team go 4-4.
Things have just gotten ugly in March. Syracuse lost two of its last three games heading into the conference tournament, including a final regular season beatdown at the hands of Georgetown, 61-39.
The Orange seemed to have righted the ship during the Big East conference tournament, taking their first three games on the way to the conference finals.
They would inevitably meet rival Louisville in the finals, where—despite a 13-point lead at half—the Orange would be outscored 66-26 in the second half on their way to a 78-61 loss.
The Big East finals loss could be a tournament defining moment for the Orange. Either they'll right the ship as they've done all season, or break to the competition. That's for head coach Jim Boeheim and crew to decide.
Montana Season Recap:
Points per game: 71.1
Opponents points per game: 65.0
Headed to the big dance for the second year in a row, the Montana Grizzlies return to the NCAA Tournament as the Big Sky's lone representative.
The season didn't start out well for the Grizzlies, who stumbled through a mild out-of-conference schedule. They entered Big Sky play 4-4, highlighted by an ugly 85-60 loss to BYU.
Then conference play started, and Montana caught on fire. It won 14 straight games, and ended conference place with just one loss at Weber State. The Grizzlies finished their year 25-6.
Montana had three big opportunities to define its season: road matches against Colorado State, South Dakota State and Davidson. The team ultimately dropped all three games.
But now the Grizzlies get their chance at another season defining moment: upsetting the Syracuse Orange in the NCAA tournament.
Whether they capture that moment, or let it pass by once more, is yet to be seen.
Syracuse Player to Watch: C.J. Fair
The No. 1 player to watch for the Orange has to be the No. 1 guy on the squad: C.J. Fair.
Syracuse's leader in points and rebounds per game, Fair has been a defining force on both ends of the court this season.
The junior forward is the Orange's best scoring threat, averaging 14.4 points per game while shooting 47.1 percent from the field and 49.1 from three-point range.
But Fair isn't just about points. He also averages 7.1 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He's a big reason Syracuse was the second-best rebounding team in the Big East this season.
The best thing you can say about Fair is that he's consistent. In Syracuse's tough March, he still averaged 14.3 points and 6.1 rebounds a game, while racking up nine blocks and seven steals.
Fair is an anchor for this Syracuse team. Even when the team is losing he finds a way to put up solid numbers.
As the Orange look for normalcy on their way to turning things around in the round of 64, it will be up to Fair to bring that consistency to the table just as he has done all season.
Montana Player to Watch: Will Cherry
Senior guard Will Cherry has been a huge component to Montana's success, as well as a big factor in its struggles. He missed the first two months of the season with a broken foot, and missed more time in February after re-injuring it against Davidson.
Returning in time for the Big Sky tournament, Cherry was a big factor in Montana's run. He's averaging 17.6 points in March on 41 percent shooting.
Cherry has been a key contributor to Montana's efficient offense. He averages the third-highest points per game on the team (13.9) while shooting 42.1 percent from the field.
He's also one of the more efficient free-throw shooters amongst the team's starters, hitting 76.4 percent of his shots from the line.
On defense, he's a fairly strong rebounder for a guard, averaging 4.2 per game. And of course he's a turnover magnet, with 1.9 steals per game.
Among the three big losses listed above, Cherry only played in two: South Dakota State—his first game returning from the foot injury—and Davidson—which was the game in which he re-injured his foot.
Finally healthy, and bringing the hot hand, Cherry will be a huge contributing factor in Montana's round of 64 matchup.
Despite what seems like a huge difference in talent and success, this should be a great game to watch.
Syracuse has holes in its game, but is unbeatable when things are going well. Montana has succumbed to the pressures of high-profile opponents before, but enters the tournament on fire.
While the Grizzlies' offense is sure to give the Orange a run for their money, it's hard to bet against the experience of Jim Boeheim and his team.
Syracuse 68, Montana 60
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