Buffalo, NY (SportsNetwork.com) - The Syracuse Orange will try to put their late-season struggles behind them and prove their worth as a No. 3 seeded on Thursday afternoon when they square off against the 14th-seeded Western Michigan Broncos in second-round action in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament at the First Niagara Center.
WMU (23-9) earned the No. 1 seed in the MAC Tournament and captured the league's automatic bid to the Big Dance by beating Akron in the semifinals (64-60 in OT) and Toledo in the championship (98-77). The Broncos are 2-3 all- time in the NCAA Tournament and haven't qualified since 2004, when they lost in the first round to Vanderbilt.
Syracuse (27-5) was the nation's No. 1 team in mid-February after winning each of its first 25 games, but since then it has been stuck in a tailspin with losses in five of its last seven games, most recently getting bounced in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament by NC State, 66-63. The Orange made the Final Four last season and have been one of the nation's most storied programs over the years with 37 tournament appearances, including 31 under Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim.
The Orange have beaten WMU in both previous meetings, which came in 1978 and 1988.
The Broncos captured their fourth straight victory in blowing out Toledo in the MAC title game, as they shot a lofty 55.7 percent from the field and earned a commanding 46-27 advantage in the rebounding battle. David Brown led the way with a career-high 32 points on 5-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc. Shayne Whittington tallied a double-double with 20 points and 13 rebounds, Tucker Haymond narrowly missed one with 21 points and nine boards and Connar Tava rounded out the balanced attack with 13 points.
On the season, WMU has outshot its opponents from the field, 46.6 percent to 40.8 percent, while owning positive margins both in terms of scoring (+5.1) and rebounding (+2.4). Brown pours in a lofty 19.4 ppg but his field-goal percentage has been average at best (.418). Whittington brings a physical presence to the paint with 16.3 ppg, 9.1 rpg and 1.6 bpg, while Tava adds 12.0 ppg and 5.8 rpg to the mix.
Locked up in a tight battled with NC State the last time out, Syracuse surged ahead by two with 3:41 remaining but saw the Wolfpack regain control of the contest with five unanswered points. The team's scoring struggles continued in the setback, as it shot just 32.7 percent from the field, including 4-of-17 from 3-point range. Tyler Ennis netted 21 points and dished out seven assists but was a mere 6-of-18 from the floor. Jerami Grant played all 40 minutes and finished with 19 points and 10 assists.
Syracuse's offense this season has been suspect, as it shoots just 43.7 percent from the field for 68.2 ppg, but luckily it has relied on its excellent defense, which ranks ninth in the nation in yielding only 59.5 ppg. C.J. Fair is the catalyst with 16.7 ppg and 6.2 rpg. Ennis tallies 12.7 ppg, 5.6 apg and 2.1 spg and has had a handful of clutch moments during his freshman campaign. Trevor Cooney (12.2 ppg) has drained 86 3-pointers at a 37.7 percent clip and Grant puts up 12.2 ppg and 6.9 rpg.