Pregame: NIT First Round

The Syracuse Orange look for their first postseason win since 2004 when they take on the South Alabama Jaguars on Wednesday evening in the first round of the NIT. The game will be televised on ESPN at 7 PM. Syracuse is the 2 seed in the South Region. South Alabama enters the game 20-11 but has lost its last 4 games.

South Alabama Season to Date: The Jaguars were the regular season champions of the Sun Belt conference despite a late season collapse that featured four successive losses, including a 63-60 defeat at the hands of 15-17 Middle Tennessee State. After starting 1-2 in conference play, coach John Pelphery's team reeled of an impressive 13-0 run from early January until mid February. Their most notable non-conference win was a 67-63 victory over UC Irvine. They played three mid-level SEC teams in early December and lost all 3 games by a combined total of 59. None of the SEC teams they lost to advanced to the NCAA tournament (Mississippi St, Mississippi, and Auburn). The Jaguars have struggled to score recently, having eclipsed 70 point only once in their last 5 games, 4 of which were losses.

South Alabama Personnel: The most talented member of the team is Demetric Bennett, a 6-5 JR swingman from Albany, GA. Bennett leads the team in scoring (15.3) and was second in rebounding. He has knocked down 74 triples on the season and shoots at a relatively high clip from the perimeter (42%). He also likes to post up smaller defenders. Bennett has had a break-out season after averaging 8.8 ppg as a sophomore.

Spearheading the Jaguars' attack is Daon Merritt, a 5-10 PG out of the Bronx, NY. Merritt was a teammate of Louie McCroskey at St. Raymonds and originally chose Richmond as his first college definition. He is a capable player, having averaged 11 ppg in the A-10, but he transfered to South Alabama after head coach Jerry Wainwright took the DePaul job. Merritt hands out over 5 assists per game and is generally pretty steady with the ball. He also has good quickness and explosivenss and isn't afraid to take the ball inside. He leads South Alabama in free throw attempts at more than 4 per game.

The frontcourt is made up almost entirely of transfers. Ernest Little (UAB), Brandon Davis (Birmingham Southern), and Kenny Hooks (Oregon State) are all over 6-7 and give South Albama legitimate size up front. Little is the biggest and most productive of the bunch at 6-9/230 lbs. He is the team's third double digit scorer at 12.8 ppg and also contributes 9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks. Little is a Terrence Roberts-level free throw shooter (56%) who gets to the line with decent regularity (100 attempts in 21 games).

Senior guards Carlos Smith and Stephen Cowherd provide backcourt depth. Smith is a very patient player who rarely turns the ball over and takes good shots. He and Cowherd provide additional three point shooting. Junior Landro Buboltz (6-7 SF) has also connected on 54 three pointers, giving the Jaguars a total of 5 different players who hit at least one trey per game on average.

Game Outlook: Under most circumstances, this game would clearly favor Syracuse. South Alabama is a decent mid-major team, but they have struggled recently and they do not have the athletes to match-up with the Orange. Simply put, they have no one to contain the perimeter shooting of Nichols, the fierce driving abilities of Devendorf, and the tenacous intensity of Harris. However, given the monumental disappointment that must come with being snubbed by the NCAA tournament committee, it is difficult to predict SU's mental outlook tomorrow night.

The conventional wisdom surrounding situations like this is that the team will either be extremely emotional and come out fired up (see: 2002), or simply "mail it in" with a lackluster effort (see: 1997). I can't see guys like Demetris Nichols and Paul Harris giving anything but maximum effort, but they may be so devastated by the NCAA selection committee's decision that they play the game in a daze. So, the biggest question will be "how much effort will the Orange players expend"? If they can match the intensity that characterized their February resurgence, this game (and the following ones) should go well for SU.

The concern, as always, will be how to stop the South Alabama perimeter shooters. They launched up more than 23 triple attempts per game and have multiple threats. We should know early on how SU's collective pysche is holding up - if the Orange players aren't getting out on the South Alabama shooters then it could signify a "going through the motions" effort for the evening.

Prediction: Somewhere between 6 to 11 thousand diehard 'Cuse fans will make their way to the dome to cheer on a team that they feel was robbed of a chance to compete in the NCAAs. The fans will be loud and boisterous, at least early in the games. The Orange showed a lot of pride coming back from a horrible stretch in the middle of the season, and I think that pride will be on display again tomorrow. Syracuse 78 South Alabama 63.

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