Top 25 Countdown: No. 4 Syracuse Orange

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 34-3, 17-1 Big East (1st); Lost in the Elite 8 to Ohio State

Head Coach: Jim Boeheim

Key Losses: Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph, Dion Waiters, Fab Melo

Newcomers: Jerami Grant, DaJuan Coleman

Projected Lineup:

G: Brandon Triche, Sr.
G: Michael Carter-Williams, So.
F: James Southerland, Sr.
F: CJ Fair, Jr.
C: Rakeem Christmas, So.
Bench: Jerami Grant, Fr.; DaJuan Coleman, Fr.; Baye Keita, So.; Trevor Cooney, Fr.

Outlook: Jim Boeheim has done a lot of impressive things during his long and illustrious coaching career, but there may be no achievement greater than what he was able to accomplish last season. In a year plagued by scandal — The Dion Waiter transfer saga; the Bernie Fine scandal; Fab Melo’s eligibility, and legal, issues; a report of failed drug tests that were covered up. — the Orange were still able to finish the regulars season at 30-1 and make the Elite 8. And if Melo, the anchor of their 2-3 zone last season, had done his homework, who knows what could have ended up happening. The Orange lost just one game when he was in the lineup.

Melo is gone this season, as are three of Syracuse’s top four scorers from last season. But the Orange return quite a bit of a talent and a team that should be perfectly suited to playing Boeheim’s 2-3 zone.

The key to this season is going to be the development of Michael Carter-Williams. A top 25 recruit coming out of high school, MCW was buried on the bench for much of last season as Scoop Jardine, Waiters and Triche made up the perimeter rotation. As a sophomore, MCW will be asked to slide into the starting role, and there’s little reason to believe he won’t be able to thrive. From his size, to his handle, to his passing ability, MCW has been compared to Jason Kidd, and while that’s a tough comparison to live up to, it’s not that far off. He’ll make everyone on the team better because they’ll get open shots. With the combination of shooters on the perimeter and athletes around the rim that Syracuse has on the roster this season, it’s not crazy to think MCW could averaged 15 points and five assists this year.

While his back court mate is quite inexperienced, even for a sophomore, Brandon Triche is arguably as experienced as any player in the country, having started every game for the Orange for the past three years. He’s also the epitome of a team-player, sacrificing his minutes last season to allow Waiters more playing time without making a peep. He’s a combo-guard that defends, rebounds and (usually) is a knockdown three point shooter.

But most importantly, like MCW (who’s 6-foot-6), Triche is a bigger guard. He stands 6-foot-4, which means that, when teaming with MCW at the top of the Syracuse 2-3 zone, he’ll help create all kinds of problems for Syracuse opponents.

Expect redshirt freshman sharpshooter Trevor Cooney to be the third guard in this equation.

In the front court, Syracuse has a multitude of weapons and different looks that can be used. The most familiar roster for Big East fans should be CJ Fair, an uber-athletic, 6-foot-8 combo-forward who has had his fair share of poster-worthy dunks during his college career. Fair has also had some impressive performances in his two seasons with the Orange, but he’s struggled to find consistent minutes on the floor. He’ll get them this season, and should thrive.

James Southerland is the guy I expect to eventually start at the four. Like Fair, he’s athletic and, at 6-foot-8, lanky enough to cause serious problems in the 2-3 zone. Southerland is also a very good three-point shooter, meaning he’ll be able to help create space in the paint. Freshman Jerami Grant, another athletic, 6-foot-8 forward, should see minutes as well.

The biggest question mark for the Orange will be at the center spot, where Rakeem Christmas, a sophomore, and DaJuan Coleman, a freshman, will likely split minutes. Christmas and Coleman are both 6-foot-9, but where Christmas is long and a shotblocker, Coleman is much bigger, checking in around 280 pounds.What Boeheim has done the past two seasons with elite center recruits — Melo and Christmas — is to put them in the starting lineup but yank them just a few minutes into the game, going with a smaller lineup. It will be interesting to see if he does that with Coleman this season.

Whatever the case, if he decides to use them on the floor together, it may end up hurting the Orange defensively; neither is ideal to play the wing in the 2-3 zone. Individually, Christmas is the better defender while Coleman is better offensively and on the glass. Another lanky center, sophomore Baye Keita, will also see minutes up front.

Predictions?: I still think Louisville is the best team in the Big East, but Syracuse isn’t really all that far behind. Like the Cardinals, I think the Orange are going to be much better on the defensive end of the floor than on the offensive end. But the bottom line is this: all the players taking over bigger roles for this Syracuse team were highly-touted recruits, and a few of them — MCW, Christmas, even throwing Coleman in there — were ranked in the top 25 nationally. Boeheim has done a great job recruiting in recent years, and this is the season it will pay off for him.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

No. 5 Clemson steamrolls No. 4 Auburn to get to Sweet 16

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Gabe DeVoe scored 22 points and Elijah Thomas added 18 and 11 boards as No. 5-seed Clemson put together the single-most dominant performance that we have seen in the NCAA Tournament to date in a 84-53 win over No. 4-seed Auburn.

Brad Brownell’s Tigers used a 29-4 run over the final 10:33 of the first half, a stretch where they held Bruce Pearl’s Tigers without a field goal, and opened the second half on an 11-3 spurt to open up a 41-point lead that, unlike Cincinnati, they were able to hold on to.

And with that, Clemson can officially put their doubters — of which I was one — to shame.

To be frank, I’m not sure that there was a single point in time throughout the course of this season where I ever believed in Clemson. I didn’t think they had a chance to get to the tournament before the season started. I thought their record was inflated by competition early in the year. I thought that they were dead in the water when Donte Grantham went down with a torn ACL. I thought they were going to lose to New Mexico State in the first round of the tournament.


They are headed for the Sweet 16, and after what they’ve done the first two weekends of the tournament, there’s no reason to think that they won’t give No. 1-seed Kansas a fight when they get there.

This group battles defensively, and they have some tough, veteran guards that don’t ever seem to be in the mood to back down from a challenge. They have the size inside to overwhelm someone that wants to go small-ball and the versatility to match up with teams that want to play big or small. They’re well-coached, they execute offensively and they have a handful of guys that can beat you.

They are a really, really good team, and I apologize to the city of Clemson, the university and the state of South Carolina got not getting here sooner.

Maybe I should have been on the bandwagon earlier, but I’m here now.

No. 7 Nevada rallies from 22 down in second half to stun No. 2 Cincinnati

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Nevada erased a 22-point second-half deficit to stun No. 2 seed Cincinnati with a 75-73 win on Sunday night in a memorable second-round NCAA tournament contest in the South Regional.

Trailing 65-43 with 11:34 left, the Wolf Pack rallied to earn the second-biggest comeback win in NCAA tournament history. Only BYU’s 25-point comeback against Iona during the 2012 First Four was a bigger comeback than Nevada’s historic win.

Jumping out to a 10-0 advantage to open the contest, it looked like Cincinnati would cruise to victory. For most of the game, the Bearcats were barely threatened. Cincinnati led by double-digits for most of the first 30 minutes of the game.

Then Nevada used a 16-0 run to claw back in the game.

With the game tied at 73-all with under a minute left, Nevada took its first, and only, lead of the game on Josh Hall’s bucket with 10 seconds left.

Junior Cody Martin paced the Wolf Pack with 25 points, seven assists and six rebounds as he was a major force behind the comeback. Hall finished with 14 points while Kendall Stephens and Jordan Caroline had 13 points each. Caleb Martin also chipped in 10 points as Nevada featured five double-figure scorers during a balanced comeback.

The Wolf Pack (29-7) now have two furious second-half comebacks in the NCAA tournament this week after Nevada rallied to beat No. 10 seed Texas in the first round. Nevada fought back from 14 down to beat the Longhorns in overtime in that one. Somehow, Nevada one-upped that impressive comeback with one of the most memorable comebacks in NCAA tournament history. With a potent offense, and weapons all over the floor, the Wolf Pack are a dangerous team heading into Atlanta. Clearly, this is a team that you can never count out. Don’t turn your back on the Wolf Pack.

Cincinnati (31-5) failed to make the Sweet Sixteen for a sixth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance as the Bearcats struggled to hit shots down the stretch. Shooting 5-for-17 from three-point range, Cincinnati couldn’t string together enough shots to keep Nevada at arm’s length once the Wolf Pack got hot. The Bearcat offense grew stagnant down the stretch. Jarron Cumberland (17 points) fouling out with four minutes left was a tremendous blow for Cincinnati. The Bearcats never recovered once one of their best shot-creators was forced to sit.

Jacob Evans led Cincinnati with 19 points while Gary Clark (11 points, 10 rebounds) and Kyle Washington (10 points, 11 rebounds) both finished with double-doubles.

This loss is going to sting for Cincinnati for quite some time. With only one Sweet Sixteen appearance since 2001, the Bearcats had a favorable draw in the South Regional after all of the chaos of this week. The three other top-four seeds in the regional — Virginia, Tennessee and Arizona — had already been eliminated. Loyola is obviously playing good ball, but the Bearcats would have been favored over the No. 11 seed as they attempted to make its first Elite Eight appearance since 1996.

Now, Cincinnati might have to wait a bit for another team to be this good. The AAC champions lose Clark and Washington as both are seniors who have exhausted their eligibility. The Bearcats will still be solid thanks to a promising collection of returning perimeter threats. But they won’t be the same without Clark’s two-way presence and Washington’s versatility in the frontcourt.

The American also suffered with the Cincinnati loss as all three AAC NCAA tournament teams were eliminated before the second weekend. With all three teams owning solid seeds (No. 2, No. 4 and No. 6 seeds) this was not a good showing from the AAC.

Nevada advances to face No. 11 seed Loyola in the South Regional. Thursday’s Sweet Sixteen matchup in Atlanta was completely unexpected as the South Regional has been chaotic so far. Since NCAA tournament seeding began in 1979, the top four seeds in a regional have never all been eliminated heading into the Sweet Sixteen.

Now, we’re looking at either a Mountain West program or a Missouri Valley program playing for the right to advance to the Final Four.

No. 7 Texas A&M upsets No. 2 North Carolina

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Back in January, Texas A&M was a missed Breein Tyree buzzer-beater away from starting SEC play 0-6.

Today, after mollywhopping the defending national champions and the No. 2-seed in the West Region, North Carolina, the Aggies are headed to the Sweet 16.

Texas A&M got 26 points, 22 boards and five blocks combined from Tyler Davis and Robert Williams while shooting 10-for-23 from three in a 86-65 win over the Tar Heels. A 29-8 surge at the end of the first half opened up a 42-28 halftime lead, and North Carolina never found a way to get back into the game after the Aggies landed the first punch in the second half.

We’ll get to North Carolina in a second, because there is going to be plenty to talk about with them, but the story today should be the Aggies, who will advance to take on No. 3-seed Michigan in the Sweet 16.

There is a reason that, all season long, pundits covering the SEC called this group the most talented team in the league. There is a reason that they were a top 20 team in the preseason. There’s a reason that, for all of the losses they suffered and the players that couldn’t find a way to stay healthy and out of off-the-court trouble, they were still a team that was too tantalizing to complete write-off.

And we all saw it come to fruition on Sunday night in Charlotte.

Playing what was a de-facto road game, the Aggies overpowered North Carolina in the paint while holding the Tar Heels to just 33 percent shooting from the field and a 6-for-31 performance from beyond the arc. Williams and Davis were terrific, but Texas A&M’s perimeter players — Admon Gilder, D.J. Hogg, T.J. Starks — deserve just as much credit.

Because that has been the biggest question mark with this group from before the season began.

It’s not difficult to look at this Aggie roster and realize just how good their big men are. Williams is a projected lottery pick for a reason. Davis was a preseason first-team all-SEC player for a reason. But Hogg spent his first two seasons on campus as the most inconsistent elite shooter in the sport. Gilder was good when he was healthy, but that wasn’t always the case. The point guard spot? That’s been a revolving door. It was supposed to be Jay Jay Chandler and J.J. Caldwell that played that role, but both of them have been in and out of trouble; Caldwell was dismissed from the team. Duane Wilson took the job over during the middle of the season, but he fully tore his ACL after spending two weeks playing on a partially torn ACL.

Starks inherited the role almost by necessity, and he’s been really good in flashes. When he plays like he did on Sunday — 21 points and five assists on 7-for-15 shooting — this is was A&M can be.

As far as North Carolina is concerned, this loss is disappointing and certainly one that is going to draw headlines, but the fact that this group did enough work to earn themselves a No. 2-seed in the tournament says more about Williams coaching job and the play of Luke Maye than anything else.

It’s a disappointing result, and one I certainly did not see coming, but for a program that thrives on elite bigs to do what they did while essentially playing small-ball is impressive.

Joel Berry II will certainly be missed, but at some point talent wins out in March and the Aggies, the more talented team, came to play on Sunday.

VIDEO: Texas A&M’s Robert Williams delivers another massive NCAA tournament windmill

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Robert Williams windmills are becoming a common trend during the 2018 NCAA tournament.

The Texas A&M sophomore forward threw down another vicious dunk as the Aggies were comfortably ahead of No. 2 seed North Carolina during a second round game in the West Regional on Sunday. Texas A&M eventually pulled off the upset win over the Tar Heels to advance to face No. 3 seed Michigan in next week’s Sweet Sixteen

A potential NBA lottery pick if he leaves after this season, Williams previously punctuated No. 7 seed Texas A&M’s first-round win over No. 10 seed Providence on Friday with another absurd windmill.

That windmill was notable because Williams just missed hitting his head on the backboard.

The second Williams NCAA tournament windmill against North Carolina was a little bit cleaner.

Williams wasn’t the only Aggie to pull off slick moves in an NCAA tournament game on Sunday. In the women’s NCAA tournament, Texas A&M used a late, cold-blooded three-pointer from Chennedy Carter to knock out DePaul to advance.

No. 11 Syracuse upsets No. 3 Michigan State to advance to Sweet Sixteen

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Syracuse continued its string of upsets in the 2018 NCAA tournament on Sunday afternoon as the No. 11 seed Orange knocked off No. 3 seed Michigan State, 55-53, to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in the Midwest Regional.

Winners of three straight games after knocking off Arizona State in the First Four and TCU in the first round, Syracuse (23-13) pulled off another impressive victory in front of a very pro-Michigan State crowd in Detroit. Dictating the slow tempo with its 2-3 zone, Syracuse’s defense kept them in the game despite extreme foul trouble, cold perimeter shooting and issues on the defensive glass.

The Orange had to deal with guard Frank Howard (13 points) fouling out with over six minutes left in the game. Center Paschal Chukwu earned three fouls in the first half and had a tough time getting in a rhythm. Tyus Battle led the Orange with 17 points while Oshae Brissett chipped in 15 points to lead the Syracuse offense. Despite making only one three-pointer (1-for-8) and giving up 29 offensive rebounds to Michigan State, the Orange are moving on with another surprising win.

Although the Orange were literally the last team to make it into the field of 68 — and many had a gripe with their inclusion in the 2018 NCAA tournament — they are headed back to the Sweet Sixteen, as a double-digit seed, for the second time in three years.

Syracuse faced a similar situation when they made the Final Four run in 2016. Not many people thought the No. 10 seed Orange deserved to be in the field that year either. But Boeheim and his team surprised everybody by making it to the national semifinals before eventually falling to North Carolina.

The 2016 version of the Orange had multiple pros and four double-figure scorers. Tyler Lydon, Michael Gbinije, Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson all came up huge at times during the team’s NCAA tournament run. Richardson’s second-half domination of Malcolm Brogdon and No. 1 seed Virginia in the Elite Eight might have single-handedly contributed to him being a first-round pick.

The 2018 version of the Orange doesn’t have nearly as much offensive firepower. Battle is a highly-touted former McDonald’s All-American who is capable of going for big scoring games. Brissett has developed his offensive game significantly to the point of also being a steady scorer. Battle and Brissett also don’t have nearly as many weapons around them to help. Howard is only other player besides the duo on the Syracuse roster averaging more than six points per game this season. As a team, Syracuse is only shooting 32 percent from three-point range — one of the worst marks in the country.

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim deserves a lot of credit for taking this offensively-challenged team with a short bench to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Detractors might get annoyed by Syracuse’s reliance on the 2-3 zone, but it seems to be working out pretty well for the Orange during the past few NCAA tournaments. The ACC and its coaches seem more prepared to face Syracuse’s 2-3 zone during conference play. But the quick turnaround of the NCAA tournament might make the 2-3 zone a bit tougher to prepare for.

As Wally Szczerbiak astutely noted in the pregame show, Syracuse’s zone makes teams take a lot of awkward shots that they aren’t accustomed to taking. Unfortunately for the Orange, they face a No. 2 seed in Duke in the next round that will already be well-versed on their zone. The Orange and Blue Devils played each other in the ACC in February as Duke won a home game by double-digits in Marvin Bagley III’s return from injury.

It’s not an ideal matchup for Syracuse, but then again, they also took down Virginia with a 16-point second-half comeback two years ago. This year’s tournament has already taught us that anything is possible.

Michigan State (30-5) saw its season end in disappointing fashion as they shot only 25 percent (17-for-66) from the field and 21 percent (8-for-37) from three-point range. Point guard Cassius Winston led Michigan State with 15 points while All-American forward Miles Bridges struggled to a 4-for-18 shooting day to finish with 11 points.

Winston, Bridges, Josh Langford and Matt McQuaid were the only four players to attempt three-pointers for Michigan State on Sunday. None of them could get going. McQuaid’s only make came on an unlikely circus buzzer-beater that was blocked and caught in mid-air.

While a cold-shooting day was the main reason for Michigan State’s demise, head coach Tom Izzo will also be questioned for his strange frontcourt rotation. Senior Ben Carter (23 minutes) and freshman Xavier Tillman (22 minutes) both received more playing time than potential top-10 pick Jaren Jackson Jr. (15 minutes). Veteran senior Gavin Schilling didn’t play after playing 10 minutes per game during the season. Kenny Goins only played three minutes after averaging 14 minutes per contest.

Tillman (12 rebounds) deserved minutes because of his activity on the glass. But Carter had a pedestrian stat line of two points, two rebounds and two assists in 23 minutes of action. In a tight, one-possession game with the season on the line, Carter looked timid in the middle of the Syracuse 2-3 zone. It certainly didn’t help a Michigan State offense that desperately needed a jumpstart from literally anyone who could help.

Jackson has admittedly struggled down the stretch of his freshman season since a scintillating 27-point outing in a Big Ten win over Minnesota in February. He’s also a 39 percent three-point shooter on the season who could have been another floor-spacing option for Michigan State to try. He only attempted four field goals in what will likely be his final college game. It’ll be fascinating to hear Izzo’s logic behind his frontcourt rotation.

This is also a really bad loss for the Spartans. For the second time in three seasons, Michigan State was bounced before the second weekend when many people considered them serious national title contenders. On the recruiting trail, rivals will point out that a top draft pick like Jackson only played 15 minutes in the loss. Bridges generated a lot of positive headlines the last two seasons. The sophomore is also likely headed to the NBA after never making it past the second round.

The Spartans will probably lose a lot of talent this offseason with two potential lottery picks leaving. And with uncertainty looming about Michigan State’s future thanks to an explosive sexual misconduct investigation that was revealed during the season, it’s hard to say how the Spartans will look next season. Athletic director Mark Hollis already resigned and head coach Tom Izzo has fielded numerous questions about the report. That story probably isn’t going away anytime soon.

A program once known for consistency and stability is now facing a potentially tumultuous offseason.