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Orange freshmen ready to conquer

TIMES SPORTSWRITER
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They've all played at least 30 games in a Syracuse uniform, so learning the Orange system and fitting into coach Jim Boeheim's offensive and defensive schemes is routine by now.


But taking the court for a NCAA Tournament game is just a little bit different for SU's four freshmen. It's a new stage, a different atmosphere, that can sometimes cause even the most confident player to fail.


As they head into Friday's NCAA second-round game with Indiana State in Cleveland, the Orange rookies believe they are ready for the next step in their young careers, and won't be fazed by the bright lights.


"We've all watched it on TV, so it will be exciting to really be a part of it," said freshman forward C. J. Fair. "But after having played so many big conference games, and playing in the Big East Tournament, this is just another game to us."


Rookie guard Dion Waiters, the most confident the group, said: "If you let the atmosphere get to you, that can hurt your game. But to be honest, we've had much bigger games than this one already. So getting prepared and playing hard is already in our mindset."


SU junior guard Scoop Jardine, who has participated in three previous NCAA Tournaments, had just one warning for his young players. "Don't get too pumped up," he said.


"Sometimes you want to succeed so much you don't play your game. These guys have done a great job of being productive and helping us get this far, so all they have to do is relax and let the game come to them."


Freshman center Baye Moussa Keita, who will be the only one of the quartet starting Friday, said, "It will be a brand new experience for all of us. But you can't treat it that way. We'll all be a little bit anxious, but after a few sprints down the court you just get into the game and play like you have all season."


Boeheim has said all along that his freshman have shown maturity.


"They've been in big games, and have been forced to produce in a lot of them," he said. "Thirty games into the season, they aren't really freshmen anymore because of what they've been through and seen the last four months."


Brazilian center Fab Melo, who started the first 24 games but has been coming off the bench of late, said he has dreamed of playing in the NCAA Tournament since he took up the game five years ago.


"You see it on TV and just imagine yourself being a part of that spectacle," Melo said. "But I think the Big East Tournament really prepared us for the pressure and the physical play that we'll see in the NCAA Tournament."


Said Waiters: "The key is maintaining the same focus, the same mentality as we've had throughout the season. But this is single elimination, and if you don't play well, you can go home. That heightens the need to play well from the opening tip."


Boeheim said he won't change his rotation despite his freshmen's lack of postseason experience.


"If we need them, they'll play. And I think play well," Boeheim said. "There are so many young players on so many teams making significant contributions that you look at them as just another player nowadays. They've been through so much before they even come to college, so playing in a NCAA Tournament game is just another stepping stone."


Fair said the goose bumps that will surely appear on his arms when he goes into the game will be a good sign. "If you weren't a little nervous, you'd be in trouble," he said.

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