Pitoniak: Orange rally around themselves

Following a scintillating second half that saw him score 14 points and hand out five assists in Syracuse's 75-59 second-round NCAA tournament victory against a Kansas State team primed for an upset, Scoop Jardine told reporters: "All we got is each other."

                Not a bad rallying cry for the Orangemen as they attempt to overcome their latest Melo-drama and return to the Final Four for the first time since 2003, when they won their only NCAA basketball title.                

                With center Fab Melo being declared academically ineligible just before the start of the tournament, SU was written off for dead by yours truly and an army of other skeptics. After watching top-seed Syracuse barely avoid making dubious history by eking out a win against No. 16-seed UNC-Asheville, I was even more convinced of an early departure.

                But a funny thing happened on their way to a won-and-done post-season Saturday against the Wildcats: The Orange rediscovered the tenacity and balance that's enabled them to win 33 of 35 basketball games this season. They returned to mid-season form.

                Jardine, mired in a post-season funk, played like you would expect a fifth-year senior to play during that second half. And his teammates followed suit. In the final 20 minutes, SU found an offensive that had been missing in action for several games, shooting a torrid 66 percent and scoring 50 points.

                Dion Waiters, meanwhile, continued his post-season hot streak and climb up the NBA mock draft lists with 18 points - giving him 75 in four games (two NCAA contests, two Big East tourney contests.)

                SU's bench asserted itself, out-scoring Kansas State, 33-0.

                That rangy, aggressive Orange 2-3 zone gave the Wildcats fits, limiting them to just four-of-17 conversions from beyond the arc (23.5 percent) and just a 31 percent success rate overall from the field.

                And, most importantly, Rakeem Christmas and James Southerland filled the void created by Melo's suspension and C.J. Fair's slump.

                Christmas time in March resulted in an eight-point, 11-rebound, three-blocked-shot performance by the 6-9 freshman, who logged a career-high 34 minutes at center.

                Southerland, meanwhile, continued his torrid play, not only contributing 15 points off the bench for a second consecutive game, but also chipping in with six rebounds and three blocks.

                So, it's on to Boston and their third Sweet 16 performance against a pesky Wisconsin team that will present a staunch challenge.

                Bo Ryan's Badgers can exasperate teams with their drain-the-shot-clock offense and stick-to-your-skin man-to-man defense. Wisconsin did a superb job shutting down a Vanderbilt team, which, the week before, had knocked off top-ranked Kentucky in the SEC tournament. John Jenkins, the nation's most prolific 3-point scorer, made just three-of-14 from beyond the arc and he and Jeffrey Taylor were held to a combined 22 points, 14 below the dynamic duo's average.

                Ryan is one of the nation's most underrated coaches, having led the Badgers to NCAA berths in each of the 12 seasons at Wisconsin. Like Syracuse, the Badgers rely on selfless play, resulting in five players averaging double scoring figures.

                In order to win, the Orange will once again need to rely on their balance, depth and defense. Their big playmakers - Scoop, Waiters and Kris Joseph - are going to have to continue to make plays. The Badgers can't clamp down on everybody, so there will be some matchups the Orange should be able to exploit. And they could find themselves challenged to score themselves against SU's active zone.

                I foresee a low-scoring, down-to-the-wire contest, and given their penchant for winning close games this season, I like SU's chances.

                A victory probably would set up a highly-anticipated showdown with Ohio State next Saturday in the East Region finals, with a ticket to New Orleans at stake.

                The Orange would be the underdogs in that game, too, but that doesn't appear to bother them in the least. They are feeding off the skepticism, finding energy in this us-against-the-world approach.

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