Syracuse – Stephen F. Austin Preview

The last time SU made a deep run in the Big East tournament, it won four games in four days at Madison Square Garden in 2006. The exhausted ‘Cuse were then ousted by Texas A&M in the first round of the Big Dance. Just a year before, T.J. Sorrentine's Vermont Catamounts stunned Syracuse in the first round of the tourney after the Orange won the Big East tournament.

However, last time SU received a three seed in March Madness, it reeled off six straight wins, including four over Big 12 opponents on its way to a national title.  SU hopes to duplicate that feat this postseason.  In reality, however, most SU fans have expectations of something right in-between the two, with most expecting a trip to the Sweet 16 or Elite 8.  One thing everyone can agree on though:  Jim Boeheim's club cannot afford to overlook anyone, even the Lumberjacks, their first round opponent.

As for those Lumberjacks, they enter the 2009 NCAA tournament as total newbies.  While SU is making its first appearance since 2006, Stephen F. Austin is making its first appearance in March Mayhem ever, as champions of the Southland Conference.  The Lumberjacks finished the regular season with a record of 24 up and 7 down. 

‘Stone Cold' Stephen F. Austin is led by senior center Matt Kingsley, who pours in more than sixteen points per game and grabs nearly eight boards.  Floor general Eric Bell averages just 3.6 points and dimes per game, but the diminutive point guard is the calming influence that guides this team.  With an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 2:1, Bell stands just 5'3" and is listed at 150 lbs.  Suffice it said, this will be one of the few times Johnny Flynn has a size advantage on his opponent.

The Lumberjacks also feature senior forward Josh Alexander as their second leading scorer.  He averages more than fourteen points and five rebounds per game.  However, this is a basketball team that shoots just 32% from the distance, 45% from the floor and 65% from the charity stripe.  Stephen F. Austin will need to find its offensive groove early if it looks to pull the upset off here, as Syracuse comes into the tournament riding as big a wave of momentum as nearly any team in the country.

Six Keys To The Game / Pressing Questions

  • Stephen F. Austin will provide an utter contrast in tempo to ‘Cuse fans used to games flying up and down the court.  The Lumberjacks average just 66 points per game and have been held below sixty in 11 of their 31 contests this season.  To top that off, the Lumberjacks are a much smaller team and one that could be totally overwhelmed by SU's athletes.  The Southland Conference representative grabs less than 36 rebounds per game and will have a tough time keeping it close if it can keep the battle close on the boards and hold SU under 70-75 points.
  • Meanwhile for SU, it remains unbeaten when Arinze Onuaku scores twelve or more points (16-0 when he does, 10-9 when he does not) and when Andy Rautins shoots fifty percent or better from the floor (10-0 when he does, 16-9 when he doesn't). 
  • SU, meanwhile, has re-established itself as a team to be feared on the road or on a neutral court, boasting a résumé of victories that match up favorably with nearly any other team's.  SU has taken down Kansas (3 seed in NCAA) in a virtual road game, Florida (1 seed in NIT) in a neutral site game, Memphis (2 seed in NCAA) on the road, Marquette (6 seed in NCAA) on the road and Connecticut (2 seed in NCAA) on a neutral court.  That doesn't even include SU's most recent win, over West Virginia, in the Big East semifinals.  Meanwhile, SFA has struggled a bit away from home, posting an unbeaten mark at home, but dropping three games on the road in a weak conference.
  • SFA also dropped four games on the road in non-conference play when it went out to try and play someone.  It came close, however, falling by seven to the Aggies of Texas A&M on the road, who as we speak, have moved onto the round of 32.  However, SFA's best win this season comes over a North Dakota State team in triple overtime.  That's a Bison team in its first year as a D-1 team and one that snagged a 14 seed in the Big Dance.  So what makes this one a matchup that could be close?  Simply put, the magic of March and the grit and determination of the underdog.
  • In five of its seven losses, Stephen F. Austin has received a lackluster performance from Matt Kingsley, its leading scorer.  He has scored in single-digits or limited by foul trouble in five of the teams setbacks this year.
  • If you're into symmetry, then you'll like this nugget.  If you're a Syracuse fan, perhaps not so much.  However, fourteenth-seeded Northwestern State, representing the Southland Conference a couple of years ago, stunned third-seed Iowa.  The Hawkeyes, like SU, were considered overseeded by some and had just went on a run in their conference tournament.  However, Iowa likes to slow the pace of the game down, while Syracuse will be running at every opportunity tomorrow.  Expect SU to make it a little hairier than you'd like, but get the job done irregardless.

Prediction:  #3 Syracuse 84, #14 Stephen F. Austin 68

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