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Syracuse earned a No. 11 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament during Sunday’s Selection Show and avoided a play-in game. The Orange will play Friday at 9:40 p.m. against No. 6 seed San Diego State in Hinkle Fieldhouse as part of the first day of the Round of 64.
After the bracket reveal, we asked our beat writers to analyze the NCAA Tournament field. Here’s what they had to say:
What’s SU’s ceiling, what’s its floor, and how far do you think it’ll go?
Andrew Crane: The floor is obviously a one-and-done NCAA Tournament appearance against San Diego State, but I think Syracuse’s run will extend further than that. The Aztecs haven’t played the 2-3 zone yet this season — Air Force was the only zone they faced — which just seems like a recipe for the Orange stifling SDSU shooters and advancing to the next round against West Virginia. SU could win that game, too, if Buddy Boeheim stays hot while shooting and other options complement him on offense. But that leads to a matchup with Houston, which is why I think the Sweet 16 is Syracuse’s ceiling. Realistically, I think they’re eliminated in Round of 32 by the Mountaineers.
Anthony Dabbundo: Syracuse’s ceiling is the Sweet 16. I see a world where the Orange upset San Diego State after a rough Aztecs shooting night and advance to the Sweet 16 after getting hot against West Virginia’s mediocre perimeter defense. They’d play Houston and probably lose by double digits. I also see a world where SDSU doesn’t have many flaws and shoots the Orange out of the tournament in the opening round. Ultimately, give me the Aztecs to win in a first-round squeaker as they make just enough 3s against the zone to prevail.
Danny Emerman: The floor, obviously, is a first-round exit. Not only is San Diego State a more balanced and talented team than the Orange, but they also might be the best team in SU’s half of the region. If SU can beat the Aztecs, its ceiling is the Elite 8.
No. 3 West Virginia is a good matchup for Syracuse, and No. 2 Houston is, in my opinion, an over-seeded team that’s played one top-25 game all season. SU is just as capable, if not more capable, of beating them than it is SDSU. And an Elite 8 run after the up-and-down, bubble-or-irrelevant year the Orange had would be an unambiguous victory.
Who’s your biggest sleeper in this NCAA Tournament bracket?
A.C.: I promise there’s no Buffalo bias involved in this pick. My sleeper pick is St. Bonaventure, even though the Bonnies got an extremely tough draw against LSU. But the Tigers struggle in defending the 2-point shot — they’re ranked 240th, per KenPom — and that’s where someone like Osun Osunniyi could take advantage. Then, I think Dominick Welch, Jalen Adaway and others could shoot their way past Michigan into the Sweet 16, as the Wolverines rank 152nd nationally in defending 3-pointers and the Bonnies rank 94th in shooting them, per KenPom.
That’ll likely lead to a toss-up matchup against either Florida State or Georgetown. I think SBU’s balance between strong offense and defense, as well as strong 3-point shooting and interior size, could take them deep into March.
A.D.: Most Syracuse fans won’t want to hear this, but my sleeper is Connecticut. James Bouknight is one of the most electric players in the country, and few teams are playing better than the Huskies right now. They guard the perimeter really well, which could be a boon for a team potentially playing Alabama in the second round. The Huskies are also the fifth-most efficient team in the country in the last 10 games. When Bouknight plays, Connecticut is 11-3, with two losses to Creighton by five combined points and a third against a healthy Villanova.
If Connecticut gets past Alabama, they could make a Final Four run, given how well they rebound and the injury to Michigan’s Isaiah Livers atop that region.
D.E.: Not sure if they count as a sleeper due to their blue blood status, but North Carolina is the pick here. No. 8 seed UNC has a pretty favorable draw and is truly elite at offensive rebounding. I like teams that can flip games on one particular area, and UNC can absolutely do that by crashing the offensive glass. Armando Bacot starred in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, and he’s buoyed in the frontcourt by ACC Preseason Player of the Year Garrison Brooks, stud freshman Day’Ron Sharpe and the emerging 7-foot-1 Walker Kessler. Syracuse is very familiar with this year’s Tar Heels.
Excluding Syracuse-San Diego State, what’s your favorite first round matchup?
A.C.: Arkansas vs. Colgate This was an easy pick, if for no reason other than to see how laughably wrong or right the NET rankings were by having Colgate as its No. 9 team. The Raiders were the outlier the entire season, playing just conference games — and only 12 of them in the regular season. Yet they remained the mid-major mixed in with all the power conference teams in the NCAA Tournament’s top slots. A win over an explosive SEC team such as Arkansas would add some weight to the Colgate ranking, while a blowout loss, which is the more likely scenario, would predictably lead to more muttering about the metrics used to calculate the NET ranking.
A.D.: Georgia Tech vs Loyola Chicago. I really hoped these teams would get higher seeds and better potential second-round matchups than Illinois. Georgia Tech and Loyola Chicago are both playing like top-20 teams. Moses Wright against Cameron Krutwig is the must-watch center battle of the opening round. If Jose Alvarado and the Yellow Jackets’ ball pressure takes the Ramblers out of their offense, they’ll win. But Loyola is the No. 1 defense in the nation, per KenPom, and GT can go through periods of offensive droughts. Both of these teams might even give the Illini a challenge in the second round.
D.E.: Oklahoma State vs Liberty. The Fighting Sister Jeans against golden boy Josh Pastner? Are you kidding me? Georgia Tech is everyone’s sweetheart team after it won the ACC Tournament. It has the conference player of the year and defensive player of the year and a coach whose motivational voicemail message was played in full on ESPN. But somehow, they’re underdogs in the first round against a team with an even more benevolent reputation.
Since Anthony already took this one, I’ll throw out one other first-round matchup: Oklahoma State-Liberty. Freshman point-forward Cade Cunningham is this year’s best (and only) bet to do a 2003 Carmelo Anthony impersonation for a month. This game shouldn’t be close, as Liberty played one of the softest schedules of anyone in the field, but Cunningham is must-watch TV.
More coverage on Syracuse in the 2021 NCAA Tournament:
- Going dancing: Syracuse makes the 2021 NCAA Tournament as No. 11 seed
- Data breakdown: A closer look at Syracuse heading into NCAA Tournament
- Is Syracuse poised for another March Madness run?
Who’s the highest seed who’s most likely to lose in the first round?
A.C.: Creighton. Anthony filled this out before me, so I’ll let him take Virginia — which I also have losing in the first round — and revert to the next-highest seed I have losing in the opening rebound: the Creighton Blue Jays. They surrendered a 20-4 run to Georgetown at the end of the first half in the Big East championship game, essentially sealing a victory for the Hoyas with 20 minutes left, and that raised some major red flags heading into the tournament. Could it be a one-game blip? Sure. But the team on the other side of that flip is UC Santa Barbara, which ranks within the top 50 nationally in 2-point shooting and the top 65 in defending it. The Gauchos have an efficient offense that won’t push the pace but will maximize each possession through JaQuori McLaughlin and Amadou Sow.
A.D.: Virginia. They’ve got Ohio in the first round and should immediately be on upset alert. Get to know the name Jason Preston. He’s one of the more exciting guards in the entire tournament and is the kind of player who can get after the Virginia pack-line defense. The Cavaliers have COVID-19 issues and won’t be able to practice until Friday, ahead of their Saturday game. Ohio’s offense is elite in transition, which is the best way to attack the pack-line. The Bobcats didn’t just win their conference tournament, they dominated it and handled two top-100 teams (Toledo and Buffalo) and Kent State (112th) easily.
D.E.: Villanova. There are too many to just list one, but Villanova just caught the injury bug at the worst possible time. Without starting point guard Collin Gillespie, the Wildcats just aren’t the same. It’s tough betting against Jay Wright in the first round against an untested Winthrop team, but Nova simply doesn’t have any healthy, reliable guards to initiate offense. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Jermaine Samuels need to be Batman and Robin, and neither of them are superheroes.
Other candidates: Kansas and Virginia (coming off pauses due to COVID-19), Alabama (nobody wants to see Rick Pitino in the first round) and Creighton (coming off a demoralizing Big East championship blowout to Georgetown).
Shannon Kirkpatrick | Presentation Director
Who’s your Final Four?
A.C.: Gonzaga, Alabama, Baylor, Houston. I’m not too concerned about Gonzaga reaching the Final Four. The Bulldogs proved throughout the season that they’re a top team with a top lineup that can consistently hit from 3 using openings created by incredible ball movement. Alabama’s my pick to win it all simply because of the consistent approach Nate Oats uses on offense and the balance the Crimson Tide have on both sides of the ball. Picking Houston from a group that included Illinois and Oklahoma State was difficult, but the Cougars will end up emerging behind their efficient offense, consistent presence on the offensive glass and stout defense. I think the top-right quadrant of the bracket gets shaken up with some upsets early — Winthrop for sure, maybe North Texas — that’ll pave a fairly easy path for the Cougars where a difficult test won’t come until they play Ohio State in the Elite Eight.
A.D.: Gonzaga, Purdue, Connecticut, and Illinois. Gonzaga will feel pretty good about their region, given that they beat the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 seed in their region by 11, 12 and 23 in the regular season, respectively. Iowa could catch them on a red-hot shooting day, but it’s very hard to see the Bulldogs losing before the Final Four. I already said how much I love Connecticut, who’s playing as well as anyone and could run off wins against Alabama and Texas. Purdue is my second dark horse, playing in their home state with a likely partisan crowd for some of the games. Sasha Stefanovic can win a game by himself with jump shooting, and they have a big man duo of Trevion Williams and Zach Edey that I’d take over any frontcourt in the nation. Purdue makes the Final Four and announces itself as a preseason top-five team next season. The fourth region was the toughest for me because I think Illinois and Houston are two of the four best teams in the whole country, and they could meet in the Elite Eight. Give me Illinois because they have Ayo Dosunmu — who should be the national player of the year.
D.E.: Gonzaga, Illinois, Texas, North Carolina. Am I really giving away my perfect bracket picks? Didn’t know this was part of the deal.
It’s Gonzaga’s tournament to lose. Illinois is playing the best basketball of anyone in the nation, and its three-headed monster at guard is impossible to defend. Texas’ region gets funky, with a banged up Michigan, a red-hot UConn and an Alabama team with Oats. In the end, Shaka Smart’s squad has enough firepower to advance. The South region, in my opinion, is even more open. Baylor has shown some weaknesses down the stretch and struggles with size, which North Carolina has in abundance. I can’t get past the Tar Heels’ ridiculous 41.3% offensive rebounding rate. If they can get some solid, consistent guard play, they can beat anyone. I’m betting on Caleb Love, Kerwin Walton and elite coaching from Roy Williams to return UNC to the Final Four.
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