The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is a new start for 65 teams. Teams get a coveted bid, push the re-set button, and go about making adjustments.
The top seeds usually need little adjustment, but Syracuse’s first No. 1 seed in 30 years came with strings attached. After winning 28 games and the Big East regular season title, Orange head coach Jim Boeheim had a to-do list that include: insert a new rotation, weather the team’s longest layoff in four months, and exorcise the Vermont demons from 2005.
Boeheim and the Orange opened the 2010 NCAA tournament by imposing its size and talent in a 79-56 win over the No. 16 seed Catamounts (25-10). To date, Syracuse has 11 wins over teams receive bids to the post-season championship (others include Robert Morris, Cornell, California, Florida, Oakland, West Virginia, Notre Dame, Marquette, Georgetown, Villanova).
Syracuse advances to the second round, and will face No. 8 seed Gonzaga (26-6), 67-60 winners over Florida State, on Sunday in Buffalo, N.Y. Tip-off time is 12:10 p.m. EST.
On Saturday, the Orange had five players score in double figures, shot 54% as a team, handed out 24 assists, and ho-hummed its way into the second round. Big East Player of the Year Wes Johnson led all scorers with 18 points while Andy Rautins covered the stat sheet with 11 points, eight rebounds, and six assists.
The two-time American East Player of the Year, Vermont senior Marqus Blakely, paced the Catamounts with 17 points, nine rebounds, several highlight dunks, and a pair of media table clearing leaps.
Even as Syracuse adjusted to life without senior center Arinze Onuaku, sitting out Friday with an injured quad sustained against Georgetown at the Big East tournament last week, the Orange played its normal game: open huge lead with a crisp offense, block opponents shots that start fast-breaks, rest on laurels for five minutes, turn the ball over, and then resume seriousness, overwhelm opponent for victory.
“Everyone had to step up,” SU guard Brandon Triche told SUathletics.com when asked about playing without Onuaku. “And we did tonight.”
Friday’s offensive output started with a big dunk by new starter Kris Joseph. The 7-0 Orange run extended on a Rautins deep triple. Johnson showed off his dual-threat ability with a huge block on one end, and buttery jumpers on the other.
Energetic Syracuse guard Scoop Jardine entered the game with a warm welcome by the pseudo-home crowd at HSBC Arena (about 3 hours from SU), and immediately led the Orange on a scoring binge. He crossed over Vermont guard Nick Vier at 6:39, scored the lay-up and made the ensuing free throw for a 34-10 Orange lead.
Trademark SU apathy set in as Vermont rattled of a 15-2 run highlighted by a couple of monster dunks by Blakely. The score read 37-25 at halftime, and everyone wearing orange was restless.
“At halftime, we spoke about it as a team,” Joseph told SUathletics.com following the game. “Coach (Boeheim) spoke about it, let us know we weren’t doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Fret not, SU faithful, where there is a will, there is a Rautins. The senior shooting guard opened up the second half with two deep 3s to start half, and Vermont would not sniff closer than 14 points. The hot outside shooting (Syracuse made 10 of 22 attempts from beyond the arc), combined with stingy SU defense (eight blocks, 34% shooting by Vermont), created little thought of any more adjustments and just started the preparation for Gonzaga.
Orange forward Rick Jackson has 12 points, eight rebounds, and the calming quote of the night: “We were sitting around waiting for 9:30 p.m. to come. It’s here, we got a win, now let’s move on.”