Men's Basketball

Hass: As region starts to take shape, Syracuse could be primed for another deep run

Yuki Mizuma | Staff Photographer

After beating Western Michigan in convincing fashion, the Orange looks like it could make a return to the Final Four with the way its region is shaping out.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — When the bracket was released Sunday and Syracuse’s draw appeared, a run to the Final Four seemed unlikely.

Florida. Kansas. UCLA. Virginia Commonwealth. Ohio State. One formidable opponent after another.

First, the Orange (28-5, 14-4 Atlantic Coast) had to get by a Western Michigan team with nothing to lose. If it did, a rematch with Ohio State seemed inevitable. It would be Aaron Craft versus Tyler Ennis. Big Ten powerhouse versus one of the ACC’s elite. The matchup everyone wanted to see.

If SU beat OSU, it would, in theory, have to upset Kansas and Florida to make the Final Four for the second consecutive year. It was certainly plausible, but far from probable.

But now, after the Orange’s convincing 77-53 win over the Broncos and Ohio State’s one-point loss to No. 11-seed Dayton on Thursday, perhaps Syracuse has turned the corner. Perhaps SU has bid farewell to the inconsistent play that haunted it late in the season. Perhaps the Orange does have a little run in it, after all.

“We just wanted to come out here and prove to everyone that we are a good team and we can get back on track,” SU guard Trevor Cooney said.

“We did that.”

The Orange played one of its most complete games of the season, cruising by Western Michigan.

Cooney found the shooting stroke that has eluded him in the latter part of the season. Jerami Grant dominated from start to finish. C.J. Fair was steady. Ennis was explosive.

The Orange played like the No. 3 seed it is. Its defense was suffocating and its offense crisp. Granted, the blowout was against a Western Michigan team that plays in the Mid-American Conference and doesn’t have a marquee win to its name.

But it wasn’t just the fact that Syracuse won that should give fans hope moving forward. It was the way in which it methodically dismantled its overmatched opponent.

“Today I thought we played well offensively,” Syracuse assistant coach Gerry McNamara said, “so if we’re putting both offense and defense together that’s when I think we’re really tough to beat.”

Minutes removed from a dominant win, players in the Syracuse locker room were jovial and loose. Michael Gbinije nibbled on chicken wings as Assistant Director of Academic Support Joe Fields playfully thrust a towel into his face.

Ennis talked happily about playing in front of his family and in front of such a Syracuse-heavy crowd.

That crowd watched a clean performance from start to finish. The kind of cleanness that was often present during the 25-0 start, but has been hard to come by as of late.

The same scenario could unfold against the Flyers. Though they proved they’re capable of staging an upset Thursday afternoon, they are not the caliber of team that has a better-than-decent chance of knocking off the Orange.

After that, who knows?

Sure, Kansas is Kansas, but Kansas is just a name. Andrew Wiggins is certainly a diaper dandy, but besides him this Jayhawk team isn’t as stacked as most of Bill Self’s squads.

While freshman center Joel Embiid’s back is a looming issue, Grant’s back is no longer bothering him. He’s fully healthy and is as active and dynamic as ever. He’s been dunking like nobody’s business and could give the Jayhawks problems.

Syracuse might not rock the chalk, but it has a decent chance to beat it.

If SU wins its next three games, it will likely face Florida, a team that nearly lost to Albany on Thursday. The Gators have ripped off 27 in a row, but have looked vulnerable in their last two games.

Syracuse fans shouldn’t book their plane tickets to Texas quite yet. After watching the first day of the Madness, it’s clear anything can happen.

But if the Orange plays as well as it did against Western Michigan, maybe another Final Four run is possible. No one thought it would happen last year, and it did.

SU gelled better than it has in quite some time, piecing together its second-most lopsided victory this season.

“We were all playing for each other and just playing hard and playing to win,” Cooney said. “When you do that, good things happen.”

Maybe the magic will keep on flowing.

All Syracuse has to do is survive and advance. That’s what March is all about.

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