Orange Watch: Syracuse basketball headed to an NCAA Tournament like no other

Mar 1, 2021; Syracuse, New York, USA; Syracuse Orange center Jesse Edwards (14) shoots against North Carolina Tar Heels forward Walker Kessler (13) and guard Caleb Love (bottom) in the first half at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Item: The Orange and the team’s fan base released a collective sigh of relief Sunday night after seeing the “SYRACUSE” name appear during the unveiling of the 2021 bracket. Avoiding by one seed among the four No. 11 teams of having to play in a First Four game (unlike Michigan State and UCLA), SU draws a tough assignment Friday in Indianapolis (9:40 p.m. ET / CBS) in the labeled Midwest Region against No. 6 San Diego State (23-4). It’s a collision course of the Aztecs riding a 14-game winning streak as Mountain West champions, against a ‘Cuse team (16-9) with a little chip on its shoulder playing its best basketball at the most opportune time.

A late season surge, some bad luck with a tough ACC Tournament loss, and the results of other conference tournaments pretty much ensured that Syracuse was going to be one of the 68 schools on route to Indianapolis.

Now there’s a week full of testing protocols and a bubble environment living on a designated floor at a downtown hotel, just a few blocks distance to the Convention Center practice courts.

That’s where Jim Boeheim will fine tune his game plan to thwart a dangerous San Diego State team that he described at different points during his Sunday night virtual press conference as:

  • Big
  • Athletic
  • Bullseye shooters
  • Tough defenders
  • Tough rebounders
  • A hard matchup
  • A tough draw

With those kinds of accolades, Boeheim has already begun the process of coaching his team to beat a higher seed in his upcoming 77th NCAA game on the sideline.

After admitting he had a few anxious moments heading into and during the televised section program as the first two regions were displayed, briefly questioning whether his team had earned its invitation, Boeheim pointed to long forgotten non-ACC games in November and December that were the foundation of a late-season conference burst beating North Carolina (3-10 all-time in ACC play), Clemson and N.C. State.

“The grit and determination of these guys to win the Bryant game, to come back against Buffalo, and Northeastern, really,” Boeheim recalled. “Without those games, we wouldn’t be in (the NCAA) conversation, we’d be planning for next year.”

Why is there a spark in Syracuse’s game in March after hitting the low point of the season following an embarrassingly bad second January loss to Pittsburgh in a 10-day span?

Big man Quincy Guerrier, bringing it every game with a consistent season average of 14 ppg and nearly 9 rpg, diagnosed four areas that exhibit a concentrated team effort is needed to prove that SU can play with virtually any other team in the field.

» Related: Syracuse selected for NCAA Tournament as 11 seed

“We’ve played better on defense, we communicate (better in the zone),” Guerrier explained on the eve of departing to Indiana.

“Our offense is a little bit better too, because we’ve been moving more. We’re (also) in a positive (frame of mind) right now. Everyone’s been talking with each other, we’ve (bonded). That’s why we’re playing better than at the beginning of the year.”

The 2021 tournament, with no travel needed upon arrival, and with a limited number of fans allowed to watch in the various arenas around Indy from the round of 64 teams forward, it will balance out to some degree the competitive nature of the game.

With Jim Boeheim, the unique zone, and the potential for a lot of SU shots to go down, it’s a great opportunity for the Orange to pick up where they left off the last two weeks in ACC play.

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About Brad Bierman 848 Articles
Now in his sixth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.