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Pitoniak: Fair is Excellent
He had been arguably Syracuse's most consistent player throughout the regular season.
But once March Madness commenced, C.J. Fair's game went AWOL.
The sophomore forward wound up making just two-of-17 shots and scoring a measly 10 points in the Orangemen's two Big East tournament games and first two NCAA games combined.
The slump prompted many to wonder if Fair was sick or injured.
But the day before SU's Sweet Sixteen matchup against Wisconsin, he insisted he was neither.
"I'm good to go,'' he told reporters. "And (Thursday's) a good day to show people I'm ready."
Well, Thursday night arrived and Fair showed he was more than ready.
The 6-foot-8 forward from Baltimore scored 15 points on seven-of-nine shooting from the field, hauled in seven rebounds and made four steals as the top-seeded Orangemen survived a torrid shooting night by the Badgers and escaped with a 64-63 win in Boston.
The win advances SU to the Elite Eight on Saturday evening, marking the first time since their national championship season in 2003 that they've gone this deep in the NCAAs. Remarkably, this is only the fifth time in Jim Boeheim's illustrious 36-year coaching career that Syracuse has made it this far.
SU's balanced depth was on display again as Fair joined Scoop Jardine (14 points), Dion Waiters (13) and Brandon Triche (11) in double-scoring figures.
Fair's return to his old self couldn't have come at a better time because James Southerland, who had scored 15 points in each of the two previous games, put up a goose egg against the Badgers.
The Orange also received an energy boost off the bench from sophomore center Baye Keita. Starter Rakeem Christmas was hamstrung by foul problems early and Keita wound up contributing five rebounds and four points in 28 minutes before fouling out.
SU needed every point it could muster against the Badgers, who had entered the game with the nation's stingiest defense (52 ppg. allowed). Wisconsin converted 14 3's - the most SU has allowed this season - and at one point in the second half had nailed six in a row from beyond the arc. But the Orangemen's rangy zone really clamped down on the Badgers deep shooters down the stretch, and Wisconsin missed its final five shots, including a bomb from about 30 feet that Jordan Taylor forced up with three seconds remaining and SU up by a point.
Credit Waiters for playing air-tight defense on that final possession. Taylor clanged his shot and Josh Easser's rebound and desperation putback didn't come close as the buzzer sounded.
After dealing with the initial shock of center Fab Melo's suspension just before the NCAAs tipped off, the Orangemen appear to have rediscovered their swagger. Against a very good Wisconsin team, they once again demonstrated their explosiveness, reeling off a 22-6 run toward the end of the first half that gave them a seemingly commanding 10-point lead. But a careless foul by Christmas and a sloppy pass by Jardine resulted in a four-point run by the Badgers to end the half.
The lead changed hands several times in the second half. With SU up by one and just 18.9 seconds remaining Kris Joseph went to the line for a one-and-one. A 75-percent free-throw shooter, he missed the first shot, Wisconsin grabbed the rebound and it appeared that the Orange was in deep trouble. But SU's defenders did a superb job of badgering the Badgers ballhandlers and making Taylor (17 points) take an uncomfortable shot.
The Orangemen should be lauded for converting 55 percent of their shots against a Wisconsin team that ranks among the nation's top 10 in field goal defense. SU's philosophy of trading threes for twos worked. Wisconsin hit 55 percent of its 3s, but converted only 30 percent of their two-point shots. Syracuse, meanwhile, was 22-of-40 on its two-point attempts and five-of-nine from beyond the arc.
I know this has no bearing on anything, but during SU's run to the title in '03 they won two games in Boston (though they were early round contests, not regional games). And SU also claimed a one-point victory in their Sweet Sixteen game against Auburn that year, winning a 79-78 decision. Again, that history doesn't mean beans, but it's interesting nonetheless.
Just one more game stands in the way of their fifth trip to the Final Four.