BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — C.J. Fair was a loser on Senior Day in the Carrier Dome and in the only Atlantic Coast Conference tournament game he’ll ever play. Enough already for Syracuse’s smooth-shooting swingman.
Fair and the Orange (27-5), the third seed in the South, have a chance to set things straight again when they face No. 14 Western Michigan (22-9), champion of the Mid-American Conference, in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday.
“It could be my last game, but as a team we want to prolong the season, not get it get cut short,” Fair, the Orange’s leading scorer (16.7), said Wednesday. “Hopefully, we win tomorrow, get the first game under our belt, and we can get it going.”
The Broncos are in the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade and fourth in school history, and they have experience on their side. They’re led by a pair of fifth-year seniors – 6-foot-11 center Shayne Whittington and guard David Brown – and 6-foot-6 sophomore forward Connar Tava.
Brown led the MAC with 19.4 points per game and earned MVP of the conference tournament after scoring a career-high 32 points that included five 3-pointers in the final against Toledo. Whittington averaged 16.3 points and 9.1 rebounds during the regular season, while Tava was second in the conference in shooting at 60.4 percent and led the team with 90 assists.
Sort of the perfect combination to wreak some havoc on the Orange’s 2-3 zone, which was instrumental a year ago in their run to the Final Four.
“We pride ourselves in our inside-out game, getting the ball in the paint,” Whittington said. “So, developing that and getting their mind on that early, maybe it will help them sink a little bit so we can have a few 3-pointers.”
Last March, Indiana was like most of the nonconference teams on Syracuse’s schedule, not used to seeing Orange coach Jim Boeheim’s trademark defense, and it showed. The team that finished third in the country in scoring (79.5 points per game) lost 61-50 as Syracuse limited the top-seeded Hoosiers to their lowest output of the season.
Fast forward a year, and that advantage probably isn’t what it used to be, and both teams know it. Syracuse is still stingy on defense, allowing 59.5 points per game, but the zone has gotten around.
“I believe probably everyone in this tournament played against a team that ran the zone at some point,” Fair said. “I don’t think it gives us an advantage.”
Five things to know when Syracuse plays Western Michigan:
COONEY MAGIC: When Orange shooting guard Trevor Cooney follows through on a 3-pointer and bends his right wrist a certain way, it usually spells trouble for opponents. Trouble is, he hasn’t created much trouble lately, going 5 for 24 (20.8 percent) from long range in late-season losses to Virginia, Georgia Tech, and North Carolina State. Syracuse needs his shot to start falling regularly. “We’ve kind of not been looking for him as much as we should’ve the past couple games,” freshman point guard Tyler Ennis said. “When you’ve got a shooter like that, you have to get him the ball. Teams have done a good job sticking with him, but we’ve got to find him.”
HOME-COURT ADVANTAGE?: Syracuse is playing in Buffalo for the second time in five years, and the Orange have fared well by the shores of Lake Erie. They beat Vermont and Gonzaga in 2010 before losing to eventual national runner-up Butler, hampered mightily when center Arinze Onuaku was unable to play. This time, all hands are healthy and the crowd will be decidedly Orange, whose rabid hometown fans are just a 3-hour drive away. The Broncos are ready. “I think we play a little bit better when we know there’s a little more adversity,” Whittington said. We like that kind of environment. We thrive on that.”
FAMILIAR FOES: Western Michigan split two games with Eastern Michigan, which is coached by former Syracuse assistant Rob Murphy and utilizes most aspects of Syracuse’s defense. Syracuse played EMU once – in its final nonconference game in December – and won 70-48. “We hope it’s a help,” WMU coach Steve Hawkins said. “The zone is very similar, the players are different. When Syracuse goes to the bench, they bring a 6-7 guy, then they’ll bring in a 6-10 guy, then they’ll bring in a guy that’s 8-foot tall. It’s just an onslaught.”
COMEBACK KIDS: Both teams are capable of stirring comebacks. In the semifinals of the MAC tournament, Western Michigan trailed Akron by 18 points early in the second half and by 15 with 10 minutes left before rallying to stun the Zips 64-60 in overtime when Brown banked in a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 30 seconds left. Syracuse trailed Villanova, the second seed in the East, by 18 points in their December game and beat the Wildcats 78-62.
STOPPING THE SKID: After starting the season with 25 straight wins and reaching No. 1, Syracuse has lost five of its last seven – four by six points or fewer – as the offense continued its season-long struggle. Boeheim thinks it looks worse than it is, and Ennis knows how to right the Orange ship: “Defense has been what we bank ourselves on,” Ennis said. “Our offense can struggle, but if we’re defending we can still win games. We’re kind of locked in again and we’re back in one group.”