You'll have to forgive me if I'm a bit disorganized. I'm distracted by the shear heavenliness of the tourney's first two rounds. Normally I have my articles outlined, planned, and edited in a coherent fashion, but with tip-off less than 24 hours away, I'm gonna proceed Kerouac-style and just let my fingers wander on a trip through the Atlanta bracket.
Seeding: It seems weird to me that last year's team got a 4 seed with a 27-6 regular season and BET championship, but this year's team got a 5 seed with a 23-11 record. I know SU had a tougher road to hoe in this year's BET, but... Four less wins and FIVE more losses... It doesn't really add up in my mind and makes me think that last year's team was undervalued as a 4 seed and should have been a 3. Although, when you think about it, they lost, so I guess in the end they were actually overvalued.
Outlook: Regardless of the team (or hopefully teams) that SU will play, the ‘05-06 Orange(men) have proven two things:
1) They can beat anybody (see: UConn, Pitt), and
2) They can lose to anybody (see: DePaul, Seton Hall).
The Bracket, Part One: Texas A&M is the first obstacle. I'm always wary of playing a major-conference team in the first round, if for no other reason than major conference teams have played OTHER major conference teams, so they won't be overwhelmed by the level of competition. That said, in the early rounds of the NCAA tourney, SU has fared better historically against mid-level teams from good conferences (Oklahoma State, Auburn, Florida, Virginia) than first place teams from poor conferences (see: Vermont, Richmond, Rhode Island). I tend to think that is because mid-level teams from good leagues are usually a bit young and rely heavily on athleticism, while first place teams in poor conferences are usually senior-laden and have better skill players. These guys tend to play with more teamwork, poise and execution than mid-level teams from power conferences.
Random Thought #1: About half an inch. That's all that separates SU from a 5 seed and an NIT invite. If Gerry McNamara's running floater at the buzzer against Cincinnati went wide by about another half inch, SU would have already prettied up the Dome and played an NIT game. After seeing the final brackets, it's pretty obvious that last Wednesday evening's game with Cincy was a "play-in" game. As a 'Cuse fan, I'm thanking my lucky stars over that half-inch.
Scheduling Factors: According to some RPI numbers, SU finished with a strength of schedule rated #1 in the country. The Orange played a remarkable 23 games against teams that made the postseason this year, going 13-10 overall against this competition. Looking at things from this perspective, it is rather impressive that the Orange suffered only one loss to a team that didn't make the post season (DePaul).
SU was 6-9 against NCAA tourney teams. They went undefeated against West Virginia, Kent State, and Davidson, split with Georgetown and Pitt, won 1 of 3 games against UConn, and dropped both games against ‘Nova. The 6-7 combined record against the aforementioned foes was offset by an 0-2 record against Florida and Bucknell.
If the Orange hadn't landed in the NCAAs, you'd have to think they'd be the odds-on favorite to win the "Not-In-Tourney" Tournament. Syracuse overpowered NIT-level competition to the tune of a 7-1 overall record (2-1 vs. Cincinnati and 1-0 vs. Rutgers, Notre Dame, Louisville, Manhattan, and UTEP). Fortunately, SU fans don't have to worry about the NIT.
An interesting thing to note here is that SU's early season home schedule, which is usually reserved for cupcakes, shaped up very well with 5 teams (Bucknell, Kent State, Davidson, Manhattan, and UTEP) reaching the post-season. This is a far cry from the days of lamb-basting a string of Cornell, Canisius, Binghamton, Colgate, and Buffalo. It also goes a long way in explaining why this year's 23-11 team has a higher RPI (17) entering the NCAAs than last year's 27-6 team (RPI = 22). Looks like I just answered my own question from above.
The Bracket, Part Two: Personally I don't like the draw. Looking ahead to the rest of the bracket (which is obviously a thing you SHOULDN'T do), the first name that jumps out is Duke. The Dukies are the top #1 seed overall and have a potential zone-shredder in J.J. Reddick. They have some interior muscle in Sheldon Williams. Would Reddick go off for 40 against the SU zone, would Williams foul out the entire 'Cuse frontline? SU fans wanted to see this match-up last year, but were denied due to the Vermont debacle. Maybe this year they'll get their wish.
First, they'll have to get through Texas A&M and (most likely) LSU. Let's assume for a second that the Orange can handle the Aggies (I'm being hypothetical, so this shouldn't count as bad mojo). Truth be told, I'm more frightened of LSU than Duke. The Tigers are ultra-athletic, and they have the type of player who typically kills the SU zone - a big man who can pass and shoot from the mid-range. Glenn "Big Baby" Davis is mobile, skilled, and tough. And, he's surrounded with some serious talent in Tyrus Thomas, and Darrel and Tasmin Mitchell. All four are double-digit scorers. However, the team does have some weaknesses: they are young (only one upperclassman sees significant minutes), they don't shoot (or make) many threes, and they are basically only 6 deep. Plus, they haven't seen much zone this year in the SEC, so the vaunted 2-3 might just be the ticket.
Random Thought #2: Darryl Watkins is turning into the player that everyone expected him to be about a year ago. Energy + interest = rebounds, blocks, and easy buckets, just like Mr. Pibb + Red Vines = Crazy Delicious. Did I mentioned I'm a bit distracted?
Regular Season Parallels? In many respects, this year's Orange(men) are quite a lot like the ‘95-96 Orangemen who struggled to beat the very top level teams in the nation until late in the year, and also dominated NIT-level opponents. The '95-96 Orangemen played 17 games against teams that made the postseason, going 5-5 against NCAA teams and 7-0 against NIT teams. Very similar numbers indeed. Also, the '95-96 team suffered through a brutal 1-3 stretch in the middle of the season when they played Connecticut, Georgetown, Boston College, and Villanova all in succession. Three of the four teams were ranked in the top 6 nationally at the time of the game and all 4 eventually made the NCAA tourney. This year's Orange team had a similar brutal stretch, losing 4 in a row in late January to Villanova, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, and Seton Hall. Three of those 4 teams were in the top 10 and all 4 have received NCAA bids.
Other similarities - well, this one's a stretch... but Iowa and George Washington were both in SU's bracket in '95-96, just like this year. Both teams also had a cagey "never-say die" senior PG (Lazarus Sims and Gerry McNamara). Regrettably, when you take a good deep look at the two teams, the similarities end. This year's Orange lack a dominating inside/outside scorer like John Wallace and a post player with the offensive wherewithal of Otis Hill. Another thing that this year's squad lacks is consistency. The '95-96 team tied for first in their division of the Big East at 12-6 overall, while this year's team struggled to a 9th place league finish.
The Bracket, Part Three: Aggies revisited. Texas A&M has won 8 of their last 9 games, yet still received a 12 seed. Seems kinda low on the surface. They have a great win on their resume, beating Texas at home 46-43, but for the most part they have lost to the better teams on their schedule. Their non-conference portion featured two games against NCAA teams: a loss to 13 seed Pacific and a win over 14 seed Northwestern State. They are a defense-oriented team that went 8 consecutive games in February allowing between 44 and 60 points. They won them all. The Aggies only have two double-digit scorers, but they do have an all-purpose interior player in 6-9 Joseph Jones. This game could pose problems because Boeheim tends to be very conservative in early NCAA tourney games, and playing a conservative game against Texas A&M will fall right into their game-plan, just like it did last year against Vermont. If Syracuse can pull out some transition offense like it did against Cincinnati and Connecticut in the Big East Tourney, they should be able to advance to the second round.
Random Thought #3: Getting back to the Dukies, (hypothetical of course!) wouldn't it be cool to see Boeheim roll out a box-and-one for a few possessions with Demetris Nichols face-guarding Reddick?
The Bracket, Part Four: George Washington got an 8 seed despite a 26-2 record in a decent conference. If they can get by UNC-Wilmington, it will be interesting to see if they can play the "we're disrespected" roll to push Duke to the limits. They certainly have the athletes to compete against the Blue Devils.
It's premature to even think about the lower half of this bracket at this point. Texas is obviously very talented, but Boeheim has a very good record against head coach Rick Barnes. Syracuse has already beaten West Virginia. Southern Illinois has played the sleeper roll a few times now, so they might not be able to sneak up on anyone now. Iowa, for some reason, just seems like that one overrated Big 12 team that bows out early every year.
My gut feeling is that SU gets by the Aggies in a close game, but has trouble against LSU. Duke is very talented, but not invulnerable. They really only have two legitimate scoring options and rely on J.J. Reddick so heavily that a poor shooting game on his part = early exit. If the Orange can get by the Tigers, then we should be in for a spectacular Sweet 16 match-up. But don't discount Jeff Ruland's Iona team, or Karl Hobbs' George Washington team, or even the Aggies. After all, this is March Madness and anything can happen.
Random Thought #4: I'm starting to lose focus. The room is spinning. I've got a fever, and the only prescription is more NCAA! 9:40 PM can't get here fast enough!