West: Syracuse's Fortunes Turn South
Following the quadriceps injury to their center -- who is unlikely to play in the first two games -- and a pair of losses to end the season, the nation's No. 1 team the first week in March fell to the fourth No. 1 seed.
All they'll have to show for it is a slew of frequent flier miles as the top seed in the West Region in Salt Lake City.
Jim Boeheim isn't looking for sympathy.
For the Orange coach, earning the school's first No. 1 seed since 1980 served as a pitch-perfect coda to an up-and-down season that started with a preseason loss to Division II Le Moyne and saw the school sit atop the polls for the first time since 1990.
"We're proud to be a No. 1 seed," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "This team has worked extremely hard, been consistent all year. Obviously, the tournament is always going to be challenging. It'll be challenging right off the bat."
Indeed. The Orange will face off against history in this tournament. That no team that has lost its first game in a conference tournament has won the national title in the same year is a nugget you'll hear so often it may as well get stitched onto Syracuse's jerseys. They'll also face a 16 seed, Vermont, which may be best remembered for its 2005 appearance when it scored a major upset as a 13 seed. The victim? Syracuse. Who says the selection committee doesn't have a sense of humor?
The rest of the bracket won't make Syracuse feel more confident. Kansas State, which started even farther out of the polls than the Orange awaits as a No. 2 seed, along with third-seeded Pitt, which handed Syracuse its first loss of the year. Butler, UTEP and Murray State are all mid-majors on a mission in the upper half of the bracket while BYU looms as spoiler out of the bottom.
Storyline to Watch
Will Onuaku play? The Orange are one of the nation's best teams, but Kim Kardashian's tweets are deeper than the Syracuse frontcourt. The team's seven-man rotation is now down to six players, which will put plenty of pressure on Rick Jackson. Kris Joseph, the first big man off the bench, will take Onuaku's starting spot, while seven-foot freshman DaShonte Riley, who hasn't played double-digit minutes since December, will back up Johnson at center.
Best First-Round Matchup
(5) Butler vs. (12) UTEP. The fight between two mid-majors is something of an indie pick in a tournament of blockbusters, but the Miners were the class of Conference USA all season. The two teams have just one loss between them since Jan. 13, or to put it another way, back when "Pants on the Ground" was just a nickname for Tiger Woods. Remember Derrick Caracter, the former troubled but talented Louisville star? Watch him outplay Horizon player of the year Matt Howard and send the Bulldogs home early.
Most Likely Upset
Murray State (13) over Vanderbilt (4). The Commodores' offense ground to a halt against Mississippi State Saturday, so playing a team that finished 13th in the nation in defensive field goal percentage (38.6 percent) won't do much to spark Vanderbilt's scoring. Murray State is one of the nation's best offensive rebounding teams as well, while Vanderbilt has struggled to keep opponents off the glass.
Teams That'll Bust Your Bracket
Darkhorse: BYU. On a per possession basis, the Cougars were one of the nation's best team offensively and defensively. They rank in the top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, more often a hallmark of a Final Four contender instead of a seventh seed. The other teams in both top 25s? All four No. 1 seeds, Big East champ West Virginia, Big Ten champ Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Overrated: In a year of exceptional parity, there's not much of a bone to pick with seeding, but Vanderbilt (18th on the S curve) heavily outranks its RPI (25) and could be challenged by any team in their four-team pod. Pittsburgh's clangs-of-New-York performance against Notre Dame in the Big East tournament (38.6 percent shooting, 45 points of offense) is a reminder the Panthers can go cold with the best of them.
Players to Watch
1. Wesley Johnson, Syracuse -- The Orange's silky-smooth forward will have to bear even more burden for Syracuse. If Onuaku doesn't play and Johnson plays the four alongside Jackson, expect a few SportsCenter drives by slower defenders.
2. Tony Easley, Murray State -- Easley isn't a big space-eating center, but the senior is one of the nation's elite shot blockers and the biggest reason the Racers' interior defense is so stingy.
3. Jimmer Fredette, BYU. Wayans Brothers movies have garnered more interest than teams west of the Mississippi, so the high-scoring Fredette could be the breakout star of the region. He's efficient – the nation's most efficient offensive player who uses at least 28 percent of possessions – and prolific. He scored 45 against TCU in the opening round of the MWC tournament and 49 against Arizona, a McKale Center record.
Biggest Question to Answer
Can Pitt turn up the offense? As unusual as it might seem, these Panthers are a perimeter-oriented team. Unfortunately, they're not a particularly talented shooting team. The Panthers finished 113th in the nation in field goal percentage, but if Jermaine Dixon, Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker can consistently find the bottom of the net, Pitt could be a Final Four team.
How It Plays Out
As weak as the field is in this tournament, this could be the region that sends brackets everywhere to the recycle bin in the first few rounds. Watch out for BYU and Kansas State in the bottom of the bracket and Syracuse and Texas-El Paso up top.
If Onuaku doesn't play -- and right now only Boeheim's staff seems to know how severe his injury is -- expect Frank Martin and those intense stars that could meet the Final Four logo off the floor to lead Kansas State to the Final Four.