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College basketball notes: Time remaining for Orange to make NCAA impact

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Orange Nation is reeling. Naysayers are predicting a short postseason run for stumbling Syracuse.

It’s a Doomsday scenario, indeed.

But if the fans are concerned, the SU players and coaches are remarkably upbeat about SU’s future prospects. Despite the fact they’ve dropped four of five, slid from a sure-fire No. 1 NCAA seed to perhaps as far as a No. 3, and haven’t resembled a contending team for over a month.

Coach Jim Boeheim reminded the media and those that were watching his postgame gathering that Syracuse was still 26-4 after Tuesday night’s home finale loss to Georgia Tech. “I’m not happy with tonight, but I’m very happy to be 26-4,” Boeheim said. “We’re well ahead of predictions. We just have to regroup. I’d have taken 22-8 or 23-7 in a heartbeat.’’

As I’m sure any true Orange fan would have at the beginning of the season. Given the fact that SU lost three significant players from last year’s Final Four team in Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche and James Southerland; they have a true freshman point guard in Tyler Ennis running the show and a first-year starter at shooting guard in Trevor Cooney; and Jerami Grant was an unproven commodity at one of the forward spots.

Frontcourt starter DaJuan Coleman played 12 games before undergoing knee surgery, valuable backup center Baye Moussa Keita has missed significant time with knee problems, and Grant has been a non-factor the past three games battling back spasms.

“For this team to do what it’s done is remarkable,’’ Boeheim said. “I told them before the (Georgia Tech) game that the 25-0 start was probably the single best team performance in my 38 years here. To lose what we did, and to fit all these new kids into the equation that consistently made so many big plays, it’s truly amazing.’’

Boeheim is also a realist. He knows his team is struggling mightily on offense, the defense has not been as good as earlier in the season, and his razor-thin bench is a major concern as the Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA Tournaments beckon.

How bad has the Orange offense been? SU has reached the 60-point plateau twice in the past nine games, has shot more than 40 percent from the field once during that stretch (at Pittsburgh) and has not had four double-digit scorers since the Duke game k on Feb. 1.

That from a team that in past years could score 70 points on a bad night.

Is there a quick-fix in the offing? Probably not.

The offense has been stagnant. It’s a combination of not shooting well from the outside, especially Cooney, the team’s lone 3-point threat, the inability to create offense from defense, a lack of second-chance points and virtually no transition points.

Individually, those liabilities may not be that big a deal. Together, they signal a quick out in both the ACC and NCAA Tournaments.

And although Boeheim points out his 2-3 zone defense has been consistent, and that it ranks second in the ACC in points allowed, it has not been nearly as active or menacing as it was last year or early in this campaign.

Even ACC teams that haven’t faced the zone before are figuring out how to attack it. Almost every team SU faces, except Duke and North Carolina, is milking the shot clock, which leads to lower scoring games. SU’s 57.5 points per game allowed figure is skewed a bit because of the slower pace.

Boeheim has been around long enough to know that things can turn around in a heartbeat.

He pointed out Tuesday that last year’s team was playing its worst basketball of the season in the final two weeks of the regular season. SU lost four of its last five, including home games to Georgetown and eventual national champion Louisville, then capped off the Big East campaign with a miserable 61-39 loss at Georgetown.

“People were panicking because of how we finished last year,’’ Boeheim said. “But we knew we were better than that, and that just a game or two would get us back on track.’’

Three big wins, including revenge victories or Pittsburgh and Georgetown, at Madison Square Garden en route to the Big East championship game, righted the Orange ship.

Four more impressive wins in the NCAA Tournament, including East regional blowouts of top-seeded Indiana and Marquette, produced the school’s fourth NCAA Final Four berth.

“We need to start playing better in a hurry,’’ SU senior C. J. Fair said. “But I think we’re not that far off from being a good team again. We just a need a complete game.’’

Added Boeheim: “I try to look at the big picture and not snapshots. We’re in good position. When you get in the (NCAA) tournament, you’re going to play somebody good. You play good, you have a chance to win. You play well, seeding doesn’t matter.”

ACC Tournament Scenarios

Duke’s surprising loss to Wake Forest on Wednesday has put SU in control of its ACC Tournament fate.

The Orange are now in a second-place tie with North Carolina at 13-4. Duke ( 12-5) is fourth.

If SU beats Florida State on Sunday, it takes second place. North Carolina could still tie the Orange with a win at Duke Saturday. But SU has the tiebreaker with the Tar Heels because it beat them in the only head-to-head matchup.

SU can secure the second seed with a loss if Duke beats North Carolina. All three teams would have the same record, but the Orange have the tiebreaker in a three-way tie scenario.

SU is the third seed with a loss and a North Carolina win.

If SU is the No. 2 seed, it will play at 7 p.m. Friday, March 14 in Greensboro, N.C., against the winner of the second-round game between the No. 7 seed and the No. 10/15 seeds.

If SU is No. 3, it plays at 9:30 p.m. Friday vs. the winner of No. 6 and No. 11/14.

The only certainties are that Virginia (16-1) has clinched the top seed, Boston College is No. 14 and Virginia Tech No. 15.

Pittsburgh (10-7), Clemson (10-7) and North Carolina State (9-8) are fighting for the 5-7 seeds. Maryland (8-9) can sneak into a No. 7 seed but is likely to be No. 8.

The first round of the ACC Tournament is Wednesday. Semifinals are at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on March 15, with the ACC final at 1 p.m. on March 16.

BRACKETOLOGY UPDATE

Syracuse’s free fall at the end of the season has pretty much ruined the Orange’s chances of earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The only scenario in which SU can regain a No. 1 line is if they win the ACC Tournament. And that still might not be enough.

As of today, most NCAA scenarios have SU as a No. 3 seed playing in the East Region at Buffalo for the second and third rounds. Two wins there would send them to Madison Square Garden for the regionals.

However, should SU lose at Florida State Sunday, then stumble before the ACC final, the Orange could slip to a No. 4 seed. That still might keep them in Buffalo, but they would probably be shipped to another region (Memphis, Indianapolis, Anaheim) for the Sweet 16.

One intriguing possibility is set up in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket for ESPN. He has SU as No. 3 in the East at Buffalo. He also has ACC foe Pittsburgh as a No. 7 in the same bracket and former Big East foe Villanova as the No. 2 seed in Buffalo.

Sportswriter John Day covers Syracuse University basketball for the Times. He can be reached at jday@wdt.net

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