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March 16, 2010
Tournament Preview
Syracuse Goes West

by Kevin Pelton


Despite getting a No. 1 seed, Syracuse was something of a loser on Selection Sunday. By going into the West region, the Orange will have to travel across the country to play in the West Regional in Salt Lake City (some 2,000 miles away). In part, Syracuse has itself to blame. Because the school is hosting the East Regional at the Carrier Dome, the Orange was ineligible to play in the most logical region from a geographic standpoint. After that, the committee decided to put Duke in the South Regional in Houston (at 1,400 and change miles, slightly closer to Syracuse but still a long trek), a decision that presumably hinged on the Blue Devils winning the ACC Tournament while the Orange fell victim to a quarterfinal upset in the challenging Big East Tournament.

                Rd2    Sweet16   Elite8   Final4   Final     Champ
1  Syracuse     93.8     65.4     47.3     28.2     12.7      6.1
2  Kansas St.   95.3     52.2     33.7     19.1      7.8      3.4
7  BYU          76.4     41.0     27.1     15.8      6.7      3.0
9  Florida St.  68.0     26.0     15.2      6.8      2.1      0.7
6  Xavier       52.4     30.8     12.2      5.5      1.7      0.6
3  Pitt         88.4     41.0     14.4      5.9      1.6      0.5
5  Butler       55.2     33.1     12.9      5.3      1.5      0.5
11 Minnesota    47.6     27.0     10.1      4.3      1.3      0.4
4  Vanderbilt   59.1     27.1      9.0      3.2      0.8      0.2
12 UTEP         44.8     24.6      8.4      3.1      0.8      0.2
13 Murray St.   40.9     15.1      3.9      1.1      0.2      0.04
8  Gonzaga      32.0      7.6      3.1      0.9      0.2      0.03
10 Florida      23.6      6.5      2.5      0.8      0.2      0.03
16 Vermont       6.2      0.9      0.1      0.01     0.0007   0.00005
14 Oakland      11.6      1.2      0.08     0.007    0.0004   0.00002
15 North Texas   4.7      0.3      0.03     0.002    0.00007  0.000003

This is a log5 table, courtesy of Ken Pomeroy. It's explained here.

The big question for Syracuse will be the availability of center Arinze Onuaku, who injured his right quadriceps in the loss to Georgetown. Coach Jim Boeheim said on ESPN's First Take on Monday that he does not expect to have Onuaku in the lineup for the first weekend of games. The Orange will miss Onuaku's presence on the offensive glass, not to mention his high-percentage finishing (66.8 percent on twos). Without him, Syracuse is lacking in terms of size in the frontcourt. Rick Jackson is the Orange's only other regular taller than 6'7".

Beyond Syracuse and Kansas State, there is relatively little correlation between seeds and Pomeroy rankings in the West Region. Seventh seed Brigham Young is, per Pomeroy, the nation's seventh-best team, while No. 9 Florida State rates ahead of everyone else in the region. Believe it or not, the biggest games out West could come this weekend, when Syracuse would meet Florida State and Kansas State and BYU are on course to square off.

(16) Vermont vs. (1) Syracuse (Friday in Buffalo, approximately 6:30 p.m.)
When this matchup appeared on the screen Sunday, everyone--and probably especially paranoid Syracuse fans--harkened back to Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine leading the Catamounts over the Orange in 2005. Since the entire roster and the coach has changed at Vermont since then, that has nothing to do with this matchup or why the Catamounts might have a punching chance at pulling off the historic upset. For a 16 seed, Vermont is exceptionally strong--better, per Pomeroy, than all four No. 15 seeds and the 14 in this region (Oakland). Add in Onuaku's injury and the Catamounts can dare to dream, though scheduling will help Syracuse the first weekend as they play in nearby Buffalo.

(9) Florida State vs. (8) Gonzaga (Friday in Buffalo, 4:10 p.m.)
Whether the selection committee docked the Zags severely for their loss in the WCC title game, never was all that enamored with them or both, Gonzaga went from hoping to play at home in Spokane as a 5 seed to traveling across the country as an 8. Big difference. The Bulldogs also got no favor in matching up with Florida State in the first round. The Seminoles, like much of the ACC, look much better by the numbers than in the polls. Florida State boasts the nation's best defense, anchored by shot-blocker extraordinaire Solomon Alabi (7'1" with long arms) with significant help from jumping jack Chris Singleton. The matchup between Singleton and Gonzaga freshman Elias Harris should be entertaining. The loss to St. Mary's also took some air out of the argument that the Zags were capable of stepping it up in big games after struggling to knock off lesser foes. Though the better seed, they're the underdog here.

(12) UTEP vs. (5) Butler (Thursday in San Jose, approximately 1:45 p.m.)
Based on seeds, UTEP was one of the last two teams into the tournament after losing to Houston in the Conference USA championship on Saturday. Before that game, the Miners had ripped off 16 consecutive wins to emerge as the best team in C-USA. UTEP boasts a stout defense ranked 14th in the country; Butler is a hair behind in 15th. The matchup to watch will be the Bulldogs' Matt Howard against Louisville transfer Derrick Caracter, a physical post player who goes 6'9", 275 and tends to draw a lot of fouls. Howard has been known to them in bunches, so his ability to stay out of foul trouble will be key. The athletic Arnett Moultrie matches up well against Butler star Gordon Hayward, and Randy Culpepper and Shelvin Mack are both effective penetrators from the perimeter, so there are lots of interesting matchups here. Butler is the better team, but the difference isn't overwhelming.

(13) Murray State vs. (4) Vanderbilt (Thursday in San Jose, 11:30 a.m.)
For a 13-4 matchup where the better-seeded team isn't missing its star player (read: Purdue), this looks like an exceptionally close game. Murray State (ranked No. 57) is the best of the 13 seeds by a hair over Siena, while Vanderbilt has been the worst of the 4 seeds over the course of the season (which doesn't factor in the absence of one Robbie Hummel). The Racers shot the nation's fifth-best percentage inside the arc (.554). Murray State's bigs are good finishers who pound the glass, and its guards also score well at the basket despite primarily playing on the perimeter. The Commodores' best option for staving off the upset is to pound Murray State down low with A.J. Ogilvy and get into the Racers' smaller bench.

(14) Oakland vs. (3) Pittsburgh (Friday Milwaukee, approximately 11:45 a.m.)
The good news is that the Grizzlies prepared themselves for the NCAA Tournament by playing an arduous non-conference schedule that included visits to Kansas, Wisconsin, Syracuse and Michigan State. The bad news is that Oakland wasn't especially competitive in any of those games. Junior center Keith Benson is an NBA prospect who dominated overmatched Summit League opponents and is one of the nation's best defensive rebounders and shot blockers. Gary McGhee should match up well with Benson in the middle, and if Pitt can neutralize the Grizzlies' star their advantage on the perimeter should be enough to make this a rout.

(11) Minnesota vs. (6) Xavier (Friday in Milwaukee, 9:25 a.m.)
Minnesota was one of those at-large teams on the bubble that got in ahead of UTEP, riding a trip to the finals of the Big Ten Tournament. The Golden Gophers benefited in the Pomeroy Rankings from that run too, though they probably got too much credit for beating up a Purdue team the computers don't recognize as weakened. Nonetheless, the result is this game looks more or less like a tossup. Xavier has an interesting resume. All eight of the Musketeers' losses came to tournament teams, but Xavier didn't beat anyone ranked better than No. 45 (Dayton, twice). Jordan Crawford, better known before this season as the guy who famously dunked on LeBron James in a summer camp, has emerged as a strong go-to player for the Musketeers, and is familiar with the Golden Gophers since he transferred from Indiana. Crawford leads an offense ranked 15th in the country, and Minnesota is very strong on that end as well.

(10) Florida vs. (7) BYU (Thursday in Oklahoma City, 9:20 a.m.)
As noted earlier, there is an enormous disconnect between what the numbers show about Brigham Young and the team's reputation. That the Cougars built their Pomeroy Rating largely on the strength of blowouts against lesser teams and struggled to some extent against tournament-caliber competition (going 4-5 in such games, albeit with several close losses) offers some pause--but not really in this matchup. The Gators limped to the finish line with four losses in their last five games and Florida's mediocre defense doesn't figure to be able to contain BYU's trio of phenomenal shooters led by guard Jimmer Fredette.

(15) North Texas vs. (2) Kansas State (Thursday in Oklahoma City, approximately 11:40 a.m.)
Usually, when it's said that a game has turned into a free-throw contest, it's a figure of speech. In this case, the two teams may as well line up at opposite ends shootout style. The Wildcats are third in the country in rate of free throw attempts per field goal attempt. Not to be outdone, the Mean Green is tops in the nation in this regard. Kansas State also has a propensity for sending opponents to the charity stripe. North Texas shoots free throws better, so the foul line would seem to be the path for an improbable upset. The biggest difference of many between the two teams is that the Wildcats' pressure translates into forcing turnovers, while the Mean Green apparently foul largely because of a lack of size in the frontcourt.

Second Round and Beyond
Syracuse could get a major test from Florida State in the second round, especially if Onuaku is out. The Seminoles' poor outside shooting (only Deividas Dulkys made more than 35 threes) would be an issue against the Orange's zone, but Florida State would be able to crash the offensive glass and Singleton would match up well with Wesley Johnson. The Sweet Sixteen matchup looks less daunting for Syracuse, whether the opponent is Vanderbilt, Butler, or one of the lower-seeded teams.

On the other side of the bracket, BYU and Kansas State would be a study in contrasting ways to score efficiently--the Wildcats' trips to the free throw line against the Cougars' three-pointers. Kansas State lost at home to an Oklahoma State team that is similarly dependent on the three, if not as proficient at making them, but also dominated the Cowboys in the Big 12 Tournament. Pitt, Xavier and Minnesota all have a legitimate shot at reaching the Sweet Sixteen, but any of those three teams would be an underdog by the numbers against the BYU-K-State winner.

If you're looking to be bold in your picks, taking BYU to reach the Final Four--especially given a theoretical matchup with Syracuse would be played in the Cougars' backyard--has legitimate statistical justification. Still, odds are the West will ultimately come down to the top two seeds.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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