The local college basketball scene really heated up last week with two #11 seeds from Western New York – the Syracuse Men and the University of Buffalo’s Women – pulling back to back upsets and advancing to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA March Madness Tournament. And the biggest surprise of them all came from a third team, the Buffalo men, who were inspirational opening round winners as a #13 seed against #4 Arizona Wildcats, before they fell two days later to very young but very talented Kentucky. That loss by the Wildcats furthered the humiliation of the Pac-12, which had had their only other entrants, UCLA and Arizona State (to Syracuse), eliminated by lackluster efforts in pre-tournament “First Four” play-in games. And USC, which until the Collapse of the “Conference of Champions” to quote Bill Walton, was thought to be the best team left out by the Selection Committee in a long time, is already out of the NIT, which they entered a the #1 over all seed. East versus West bragging rights aside, here’s my breakdown looking ahead to the upcoming third round match-ups this weekend for both survivors:
Syracuse (#11 Seed) vs. Duke (#2 Seed) Friday 6:40 EST at Omaha, NE.
Syracuse: The Orangemen have won their three games so far by a combined total of 11 points, and all three were low scoring contests, including their biggest upset, a 55-53 win over #3 Seed Michigan State. Syracuse averaged 57 points in those games and relied heavily on three players, Tyus Battle, Frank Howard and Oshae Brissett, all of whom basically played every minute in all three games, though they should be fully rested by game time. The team is shooting horribly (35% overall) so far in the tourney and would be out by now for sure if they weren’t executing long time Coach Jim Boeheim’s signature 2-3 Zone defense as well as they have.
Duke: It’s been the exact opposite story for the Blue Devils; they’ve advanced with two high scoring blow outs against overmatched teams, averaging 88 points while winning by 22 points in the first round, and 25 points against a solid Rhode Island squad. And not only can Duke score, but they’ve vastly improved their defense since the regular season, ironically by abandoning man to man coverage, instead employing a version of Syracuse’s’ zone. Marvin Bagley III has been their best player in those two games, but Duke’s starting five is very talent balanced, including Everybody’s Favorite NCAA Player to Hate the last few years, Grayson Allen. The bench is thin though.
Duke is young, but so much more talented and had a much better season in a tougher conference than Syracuse, so it looks like the Upset Train stops in Nebraska for The Orange. Without Boeheim having a clear coaching edge here, Syracuse will have to rely on playing prefect defense to win, which still is better than having to rely on a perfect offensive performance to win, as there are always less limits on effort than there are on talent. If the game ends up in the mid-60’s or below, they have a Punchers Chance, but not much more.
Buffalo (#11 Seed) vs. South Carolina (#2 Seed) 11:30 (a.m.) EST at Albany, NY.
Buffalo: The other 11 Seed joining the West New York Upset Parade is the Buffalo women’s team. Unfortunately, they now face the defending champs in South Carolina. There is some good news, however: the Gamecocks, who stunned the Uconn women last year by handing them their only defeat of the last two seasons combined (let that sink in for a while) haven’t looked that sharp so far. And The Bulls had a better regular season record (though obviously from a much weaker schedule). And the game’s in Albany, which is still a lot closer than Columbia. Their player to watch is Junior guard Cierra Dillard.
South Carolina: Watching them win the Championship last year as massive underdogs to the undefeated and defending champ Huskies was one of the best and most exciting sports highlights of last year. They return as a solid contender again year. However, they have struggled in the regionals so far, failing to put away far inferior teams. Their star is A’ja Wilson, one of the best players in the country.
This one will be closer than most people think, and the Bulls have a fair shot at the huge upset if they play like they did in the opening rounds where they hit a very high percentage of their free throws and enough threes to cruise in both games. Yes, South Carolina is much taller, deeper and more experienced, but they have been vulnerable to turnovers, an area Buffalo has been particularly strong in. This might end up being one of the best remaining games of this tournament to watch; don’t miss it if you love the true essence of March Madness even if you’re not much into women’s basketball. Unfortunately, whoever wins gets little reward; next up is either those Amazing Huskies or almost as bad, a team good enough to have beaten them.
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