SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Syracuse is sort of a mystery team entering the NCAA tournament.
The Orange (27-5) earned the third seed in the South and will open play just down the road in Buffalo on Thursday against Western Michigan (23-9), the Mid-American Conference champion. But which Syracuse squad will show up -- the one that won 25 straight games to start the season and zoomed to No. 1 in the country for three weeks, or the one that has lost five of its last seven games?
Coach Jim Boeheim isn’t concerned. He’s been here before. Last year’s team lost four of its final regular-season games and made it to the Final Four.
"I’m as confident in this team going into this tournament right now as I was last year," Boeheim said Sunday night after the selections were announced. "I think (the players) are very confident. They won 27 games this year."
Much of the Orange’s burden will fall on senior forward C.J. Fair, voted the preseason Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year and the Orange’s leading scorer (16.7). If his mid-range game is clicking, Syracuse is a difficult team, but the Orange will need more than Fair to make a run in the tournament.
"We win when we have good balance," said Boeheim, whose 52 career NCAA tournament wins are fourth all-time in Division I. "We need to have good balance. That’s how we can be successful."
Fair scored a career-high 28 points in a 91-89 overtime win over Duke on Feb. 1 in the Carrier Dome and, entering Friday night’s quarterfinal matchup against North Carolina State in the ACC tournament, had scored 50 points on 21-of-38 shooting (55 percent) in the previous two games. Against the Wolfpack, he finished 3 of 16 (18.8 percent) and missed both 3-pointers he attempted.
"He’s such a key for us," Boeheim said. "He’s one of the steadiest players in the country. He’s a guy that we lean on."
The Orange’s other four losses in their first season in the ACC were by three points, five points, six points and 19 points. The latter was on the road against league champion Virginia, which earned the No. 1 seed in the East, when forward Jerami Grant, Syracuse’s leading rebounder (6.9) and third-leading scorer (12.2), was ailing with a bad back. Grant played only 13 minutes against the Cavaliers and failed to score while nabbing only one rebound.
Then there’s the struggles of shooting guard Trevor Cooney.
After shooting 50 percent from behind the arc in the nonconference portion of the schedule, he’s dropped to 37.7 percent overall (86 of 228), taking nearly half the team’s 478 shots from deep. Since matching a school record with nine 3-pointers that keyed a six-point win over Notre Dame, Cooney has hit just 10 of 51 (19.6 percent) from long range. That abysmal shooting has come during Syracuse’s late-season swoon.
Cooney tweaked an ankle in the loss to North Carolina State but still gutted out 30 minutes on the floor, though he finished 1 of 6. Boeheim said Cooney would be ready for the Broncos on Thursday, while Grant has played all but five minutes of the past two games.
The Orange’s first season in the ACC had been magical until the end. Freshman point guard Tyler Ennis exceeded expectations and Syracuse won its first 12 conference games, the tighter the better it seemed.
Fair sees no reason the Orange can’t rekindle that magic.
"I think our confidence level is there," Fair said. "Everyone on the team knows what we face going into the tournament. You’re guaranteed one game, and from there you have to fight to get the extra game, so we’re going to fight each game.
"We’re right where we should be. We’re a No. 3 seed and we had a great year. We had a little losing streak toward the end of the season, but overall the regular season has been a success. Going into the tournament, we just have to keep fighting and make that one last push."
This season marks the sixth time Syracuse has been seeded third in the tournament, including 2003 when the Orange won the school’s only national championship.