What a season it has been.
From a No. 1 seed contender at the beginning of the season, to a slump that left many wondering if 'Cuse would even get a bye in this tournament, to a great turn of events that has left the Orange resting for what will perhaps be the best conference tournament in recent memory and most competitive due to the parity of the Big East.
Naturally, it's time to kick off March Madness with the first bracket prediction of the year. If Syracuse is going to do well in this year's tournament, they are going to have to play great basketball, overcome old enemies and be ready to work the 2-3 zone like it has never been worked before.
Here we go. The controversy of the Big East tournament. Coaches both like this and hate this. In fact, during the telecast of the 'Cuse-Georgetown game, the broadcasters said that while some coaches love to receive this double bye, a straw poll showed that all 16 teams would vote to eliminate the double bye format.
I know, it makes perfect sense.
Regardless, Syracuse's late season run earned them the extra rest and how it helps and hurts Syracuse honestly depends on the level of commitment this week from the players. Syracuse has been susceptible to momentum swings this year, as shown with their streaky play. It's hard not to initially surmise that the double bye ends or slows the momentum they've built up.
However, a week to rest and avoid teams like Villanova, Seton Hall and Marquette is a blessing for the Orange, who lost games to all of these teams, but now can watch as they battle Cincinnati, Rutgers and West Virginia (predictably).
Overall, as long as Syracuse practices well this week, the double bye should be a huge advantage moving on in the tournament.
Last Meeting: Syracuse won 76-59
The Red Storm are the Cinderella team of this Big East and playing on their home court is only going to add to the momentum that they have built up down the regular season stretch. The Tale of Two New York schools took its definitive direction after the game where Syracuse looked head and shoulders better than St. Johns. Syracuse went on to finish the season 8-6, while St. Johns went 10-5 and gaining national attention.
The key for Syracuse is going to be the same as any other St. Johns' opponent: controlling Dwight Hardy. Syracuse has done well this year when a team's offense is run through one player (Notre Dame and Hansbrough, UConn and Walker) and St. Johns had no answer for controlling Rick Jackson or Kris Joseph.
This game will be high energy and MSG may be louder than if the Knicks hosted the Heat for Game 7 of the Eastern Finals because this will be the New York Collegiate basketball championship.
Prediction: Syracuse 75, St. Johns 70
Last Meeting: Syracuse lost 74-66
Pitt is probably a No. 1 seed going into Selection Sunday after the body of work they put together. Jamie Dixon has the Panthers playing aggressive and physical basketball and as Syracuse learned the hard way that coming back from behind against this team is extremely difficult.
However, a positive from this game was that even though Pitt was leading 19-0 to start the game, Syracuse never gave up, kept battling and eventually tied the game. C.J. Fair saw a lot of minutes and had success in this game (16 points and nine rebounds) and even though everyone can admit Pitt had control of the game, there were several times Syracuse almost took over.
Another factor in this game was that this was the first true road game for Syracuse (they had played Seton Hall and St. Johns previously) and the crowd at the Peterson Events Center was exactly what Syracuse was not used to dealing with.
This time around, Syracuse knows just how much depth Pitt possess and they mustn't allow the 2-3 zone to be shredded with Wanamaker, as well as shoot better from the field than the 39 percent in the last encounter. However, this was during the time when Syracuse was still re-tooling their players after the realization of the Fab-Melo bust and were without Kris Joseph, so these numbers are sure to improve at the tournament.
Prediction: Syracuse 72, Pitt 70
Last Meeting: Syracuse lost 73-69
Syracuse and every other Big East ran into a buzz saw when they traveled to Louisville.
The Cardinals found ways to win against every opponent when at home and against Syracuse, tremendous production from Preston Knowles and Kyle Kuric provided them with 45 of their 73 points. Like the Pitt games, Syracuse showed tremendous heart by coming back from 20 points, only to watch free throws end their hopes for a win. Furthermore, Rakeem Buckles, while not fantastic, provided a viable option as an adequate defender of Rick Jackson.
The positive in this game was the emergence of Brandon Triche in the clutch and Scoop Jardine's solid play all game. Jardine played the game well and after Louisville grabbed its game high 20 point lead, Triche led a rally that pulled the Orange within three points. Aside from Pitt, no one else has pushed Louisville that close to the brink of defeat at home this season, and Boeheim discovered the effectiveness of the half court trap against Louisville.
Rick Patino refuses to use much half court offense and if Syracuse is able to control the flow of the game, they will limit the Cardinals' transition offense. This game will come down to defense and which team learns how to use the half court offense better, and I'll take Boeheim over Patino here.
Prediction: Syracuse 68, Louisville 67
Last Meeting: Syracuse won 66-58
Based off of the seedings and matchups in this year's tournament, it is unlikely that if Syracuse is going to win the Big East, they would play any other teams with the exception of UConn and the next team in the show. Georgetown is struggling with the loss of Chris Wright and Rutgers is a solid team, but defeating Seton Hall and St. Johns may be too tall of an order. UConn, however, could logically face Syracuse in the Semifinals.
Granted, they would have to defeat Pitt, but this is possible, especially given the talent of Walker and the coaching of Jim Calhoun. If Syracuse does play UConn, this game would be close. UConn is one of those teams that Syracuse never really blows out if both teams are good and no one has forgotten the 6OT marathon game played between these teams at MSG in 2009.
Syracuse was able to handle the slumping Walker in the last meeting, however, he has since rediscovered his shooting, scoring 39 against Notre Dame. The lesson to be learned from both the Syracuse and Notre Dame game is that Walker cannot carry the team alone. Even when Hansbrough fouled out with 12 minutes to go in the second half, UConn could not put away Notre Dame with just Walker.
Syracuse was able to handle UConn on the road the last time these two teams met and with the emergence of C.J. Fair since that meeting, Syracuse has improved, while UConn has stagnated.
Prediction: Syracuse 70, UConn 60
Not Quite Notre Dame...But it is Green...
Last Meeting: Syracuse won 70-58
After watching this game, everyone thought Syracuse was a No. 1 seed contender while Notre Dame was going to struggle to succeed in the Big East. Fast forward, and it's a total 180. Notre Dame, if they win the Big East Tournament, will very likely be a No. 1 seed, taking the place of Pitt. Syracuse, on the other hand, struggled in the Big East for a stretch, but now have a chance to make noise and move up to potentially a No. 2 seed.
Jackson had to move over to center for this game after the struggles of Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita. However, Jackson did struggle in the first half. It was Joseph that stole the show with 18 and Jardine that helped set everything up for the Syracuse offense. James Southerland had 12 points and Syracuse's depth came through.
Notre Dame's achilles heel during this game was turnovers. After Syracuse broke a 44-44 tie, Notre Dame served the ball up on a silver platter for the Orange to score in transition. Notre Dame is not the same team that Syracuse faced back in January, and the Irish have developed a three point game. This makes a very troubling match up for 'Cuse, who has struggled with three point shooting teams all year.
If these two teams met in the finals for part two, Hansbrough could face issues with Kris Joseph and if Kemba Walker could force a Hansbrough foul out, Joseph could as well, making Notre Dame very vulnerable.
Prediction: Syracuse 74, Notre Dame 73