Pitoniak: Will SU avoid a Grizzly performance?

 I had to do a double-take. I wondered if my ears weren't playing tricks on me when CBS studio analyst and long-time Syracuse basketball basher Doug Gottlieb came to the Orange men's defense.

                After his fellow analyst, Seth Davis, predicted No. 13-seed Montana would upset fourth-seed Syracuse in the NCAA tournament opener for both teams Thursday night in San Jose, Gottlieb listed Syracuse as one of his sleepers.

                To be honest, I don't know which analyst to side with on this one because, quite frankly, I don't know which Syracuse team will show up in California: The one that showed grit for three-and-a-half games at the Big East Tournament, or the one that lost four of its last five regular-season games before rebounding against Seton Hall, Pitt and Georgetown in Madison Square Garden on its way to an epic second-half melt-down against Louisville in the tourney title game Saturday night.

                Montana is an excellent three-point shooting club (its 39.1 accuracy rate was 13th in the country). And its coach, Wayne Tinkle, has some experience pulling off NCAA tournament upsets because in 2006 his 12th-seeded Grizzlies upset fifth-seed University of Nevada-Reno.

                The Griz, as they're known, went 25-6 and won the Big Sky Conference regular-season and tournament titles. They boast two outstanding and versatile guards in Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar. Cherry averages 13.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game, and was named his league's best defender. Jamar, meanwhile, is a 6-foot-5 senior who was named Big Sky MVP after averaging 14.5 points, six rebounds and 4.1 assists. Their other big scorer is 6-7 forward Mathias Ward.

                Adding to Syracuse's disadvantage is the fact they have to travel farther and play sooner (Thursday) than any team in the tournament.

               That said, the Orange should still win. Repeat: Should.

               The Grizzlies may be good from three-land, but they haven't faced a 2-3 zone as aggressive or as long as SU's. And the occasionally point-challenged Orange already have gone through the ringer against three of the nation's best defensive teams - Louisville, Georgetown and Pitt - on consecutive days. So, they shouldn't find their outside shots as contested or their driving lanes as clogged as they were against their Big East brethren.

                Plus, Montana's RPI was 75th compared to SU's 13th. And, unlike the Cuse, the Griz didn't really beat any one of note.

                Still . . .

                I think the major opponent facing the Orange men will be themselves. They appeared to re-discover their shooting touch at the Big East Tourney, especially James Southerland, who arrived in New York in a 1-for-13 funk beyond the arc and left the Big Apple with a tournament record 19 3-pointers in 37 attempts. SU also received some solid performances from back-up center Baye Moussa Keita, who was a man possessed in the upset against Georgetown. He'll need to continue to give the Cuse a viable offensive option if they're going to beat Montana and the winner of the UNLV-California game in the third round.

                What they're going to need most, though, is consistent play from their guards. Michael Carter Williams and Brandon Triche wilted badly against Louisville's press, committing 11 of SU's 20 turnovers and failing to run anything resembling an offense once Southerland went to the bench with a fourth foul with 15:34 to go. I know Southerland's departure was a huge blow, but, come on, you still had a double-digit lead and you were essentially playing in front of a home crowd. Neither guard could handle the pressure of the Cardinals full-court press. They played passively, instead of attacking it. Given their lack of depth at the position, the Orange men have to hope that the ankle sprain Carter-Williams suffered near the end of the game isn't serious.

                The other killer was foul shooting. SU went 12-of-26 from the line, and MCW was just 2-for-9. If the Orange men had converted, say, 75 percent of those free throw attempts, they might have been able to stop the tsunami.

                So, I tend to agree with SU basher Gottlieb. At least for the first game. But I don't know beyond that. The Orange could get on a little roll like they did in New York, but even if they reach the Sweet 16 they'll probably face Indiana, the top-seed in the East Region. And I don't like the Orange men's chances at all against the Hoosiers.

                   Author and columnist Scott Pitoniak has followed SU hoops since the mid-1960s and has covered them since the mid-1970s. He is author of "Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story." You can read more of his stuff at www.scottpitoniak.com. 

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