Cats embrace underdog tag

Thursday March 18, 2010

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- T.J. Sorrentine dribbled patiently out beyond the top the key, watching time tumble off the shot clock.

As the digit readout switched from nine to eight, the University of Vermont guard picked up his dribble and sent the basketball soaring in a rainbow arc, from an almost comical distance - a shot that no defender in his right mind would even consider contesting.

Fans of NCAA Tournament lore know the rest of the story: Sorrentine’s shot dropped through the net like a Smart Bomb, and the No. 13 Catamounts hung on to stun No. 4 Syracuse, 60-57, in overtime of their first-round clash. UVM hasn’t been to the Big Dance since, but the late-game heroics of Sorrentine and Germain Mopa-Njila in ‘05 still stand as a testament to underdogs everywhere.

"We have a little bit of a history with Syracuse, so it’s pretty cool," said UVM junior forward Evan Fjeld with a grin.

If you think that time and roster turnover have helped ease the memory of that upset for the Orange, think again.

"When I saw the name (Vermont) pop up, it fired me up a little bit," said Syracuse fifth-year senior guard Andy Rautins, describing his reaction to his team’s draw on Selection Sunday. "I think everyone around Syracuse took that loss to heart, and I was as much a part of that team in spirit back then as I am now. It’s going to be a big game, and we’re really looking forward to it."

The two teams will meet again in Friday’s opening round of the NCAA tourney, with an even bigger disparity between them this time around: Syracuse (28-4) is seeded No. 1 in the West region of the bracket, while Vermont (25-9) is No. 16.

And while there have been a handful of No. 2 seeds upset - including Syracuse itself in 1991 - no top seed has ever been knocked off in the first round in the 25 years of the current bracket format.

"You’ve got a chance to make history," UVM head coach Mike Lonergan said. "I’m a realist, so I know that it’ll be a tough task. We’ll have to play the best basketball we’ve ever played, and [Syracuse] will probably have to be off a little bit. But it’s fun to be in that situation."

With the nation’s eyes focused on injured Syracuse big man Arinze Onuaku, Orange head coach Jim Boeheim is confident in his alternate "small lineup" that includes Kris Joseph - the brother of UVM senior captain Maurice Joseph.

"If [Onuaku] cannot play Friday, Kris Joseph will start and we will go with a team that has played a lot together," said Boeheim, adding that there are "no easy games" in the NCAA Tournament. "It is difficult to lose a player like this, but I think we can adjust."

The lion’s share of the adjustments will have to come from the Catamounts, if they have any hopes of pulling off an historic upset. Vermont is known on SportsCenter for the aerial highlights of two-time America East Player of the Year Marqus Blakely, but he is likely to find his runway jammed by Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone in this matchup.

The ‘Cats secured their 2010 conference crown and resulting NCAA berth largely from the three-point line - where they connected at a .571 clip (8-of-14) in the championship game against Boston University. Snipers like Maurice Jones (a .38-percent shooter from downtown this season) and Joey Accaoui (33-percent) will need their best Sorrentine and Mopa-Njila imitations to make the Orange pay for packing the paint.

"They’re known for that big 2-3 zone, so it’ll be fun to actually be out there and see what it’s like," Accaoui said. "They’re definitely going to try and take away Marqus down low ... we’re definitely going to have to knock down some shots."

UVM’s clipboard braintrust is putting its focus on the pieces in the Orange’s defensive scheme, rather than on the whole.

"I think more than the zone, it’s the length and athleticism of their players in the zone," Lonergan said. "They force you to shoot from 28, 30 feet away because they’re so long."

Interestingly, 28 feet is just what Sorrentine’s fateful three-pointer in ‘05 was estimated at. Regardless of whether or not lightning can strike twice for UVM, the Catamounts are psyched just to have a chance at making upset history yet again.

"We’re really competitive," said Vermont sophomore guard Garvey Young. "We have a chance to play one of the best teams in the nation, and that’s a great opportunity."


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