By Steve Silverman
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There were an awful lot of college basketball gurus who were unhappy to see Syracuse get a spot in the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday.
Jim Boeheim’s team had dropped a 72-71 decision to Pittsburgh in the ACC Tournament, and the Orange had a pedestrian 19-13 record. They were 9-9 during the ACC’s regular season, and Syracuse detractors around the country said the team didn’t belong in the Big Dance.
But the selection committee saw some things in the Syracuse program that the critics did not. Take Syracuse’s Feb. 29 game at North Carolina. While Syracuse dropped a 75-70 decision at Chapel Hill, the Orange were within two points in the final minute. North Carolina’s powerful team, led by Brice Johnson, was blowing opponents out on a regular basis, yet the Orange played them nearly even on their home court.
That game was significant because it clearly indicated that Syracuse could play with the best teams in the nation.
So, while critics pinched their noses and held their breath, the Orange started playing and winning NCAA Tournament games, and now the 10th seed in the East Regional finds itself in the Final Four.
Syracuse once again has to play the Tar Heels, and this time they will do it in Houston instead of Chapel Hill. The oddsmakers have made North Carolina a nine-point favorite, but Syracuse may have the Tar Heels just where they want them.
There is a lot more pressure on North Carolina to cut down the nets on Monday night than there is on any of the other three teams. Oklahoma and Villanova are both No. 2 seeds and excellent teams, but the experts believe that Roy Williams and the Tar Heels will be the last group standing.
That’s just fine with Boeheim and the Orange. Boeheim has proved correct after he criticized Syracuse detractors at the start of the tournament. Their wins over Dayton, Middle Tennessee, Gonzaga and Virginia have shown that this is a team that can turn up the defensive pressure when it matters most and can score when the game is on the line.
The shocking win over top-seeded Virginia shows the Orange will not be intimidated. They were down by 14 points at halftime to the Cavaliers, and the deficit grew to 16 points early in the second half. But Malachi Richardson scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half, as the Orange rallied all the way back.
”It was a whole team effort, and these guys really deserve it,” Boeheim said after the memorable victory. ”We beat a great basketball team. I’ve never been prouder in all my 40 years as coach of a basketball team as I am of this team tonight.”
Richardson, Michael Gbinije, Trevor Cooney, Tyler Roberson, DaJuan Coleman and Tyler Lydon know just what they will have to do as they take on North Carolina in the national semifinal game.
They clearly understand what the Tar Heels are capable of doing and when they look at the videotape of North Carolina’s Elite Eight win over Notre Dame, that viewing will confirm just how good Johnson, Marcus Paige and Joel Berry II are when the game is on the line.
But Syracuse’s familiarity with the Tar Heels is a good thing, and it means they won’t be beaten before they take the court.
Boeheim is taking his fifth team to the Final Four, and this is the sixth time that a Syracuse team has gotten that far. Syracuse teams clearly know how to play under the brightest lights.
Few give Syracuse a chance against North Carolina, and the odds of Syracuse coming away with the championship Monday night are slim. However, this is a team that does not fold up under extreme pressure.
They have clutch scoring and their famous zone defense that seems to be at its best when the situation is most difficult.
If the Orange can keep Johnson from swatting shots into the third row and keep the game close through the first half, they should have a chance to pull off a monumental upset that turns the college basketball world upside down.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy