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Orange lands in East, heads West

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The Syracuse Orange had a feel-good week in New York City, re-establishing its offensive identity and making a spirited run to the Big East Conference championship game on Saturday night.

Now, coach Jim Boeheim’s team will make a cross-country trek to the West Coast to begin what they hope is a similar charge in the NCAA Tournament.

Syracuse (26-9) received a No. 4 seed in the East Region on Sunday when the brackets were announced, and will take on No. 13 Montana (25-6) in a second-round game at to-be-determined time Thursday at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. The winner of that game will play either No. 5 UNLV or No. 12 California in Saturday’s third round for a berth in the Sweet 16 on March 28 at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

Big Ten regular-season champion Indiana is the top seed in the East, Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tourney champion Miami is second, and Big East foe Marquette is seeded third.

The Orange will be making its 36th NCAA appearance, and have a 55-35 record. This is Boeheim’s 30th NCAA berth, and he ranks fifth all-time with a 48-28 record.

“I think we’re going into this year’s tournament with a very positive attitude,” Boeheim said. “We proved to be a very good team at the Big East tournament. The kids have really worked hard the last couple of weeks to prepare for this. Because the NCAA Tournament is the only thing you’re judged by at the end of the season.”

SU is used to playing much lower seeds in its first NCAA game. Orange senior forward James Southerland said, “We just need to focus on what we’re doing. Every game is going to be a battle, no matter who you play. Last year we found that out against UNC Asheville (a tight 72-65 win). You just have to go out and do what you do best.”

In Montana, the Big Sky Conference regular-season and tournament champion, SU faces a club that will be making its 10th NCAA appearance, second in a row and third in the past four seasons. The Grizzlies are 2-9 in the tournament, with their only wins coming against Nevada in 2006 and Washington State in 1976.

The Grizzlies have also won 21 of their last 23 games after beginning the season by losing four of their first six.

Montana, under seventh-year head coach Wayne Tinkle, earned the Big Sky’s automatic NCAA bid with a 67-64 home win over Weber State last week. The Grizzlies’ 25 wins ties last year’s team for the most in school history.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Tinkle said Sunday night on the school’s web site. “They are really long and athletic. They play zone, and we’ve struggled against zones. But our guys are very confident right now. We’ve got guys who can make plays, and we’re riding great momentum.”

Kareem Jamar, a 6-foot-5 junior and the Big Sky Player of the Year, scored 20 points in the title game. He was chosen the tourney MVP for the second consecutive season. Jamar averages 14.5 points per game and six rebounds.

Montana also has another all-conference selection in senior point guard Will Cherry (13.9 ppg), and a second-team pick in sophomore guard Jordan Gregory.

The Grizzlies, whose only conference loss was at Weber State (93-87), also lost at Davidson, Colorado State, BYU and San Francisco, and to South Dakota State at home.

They are only 2-5 against the RPI top 100, and their strength of schedule is a poor 240. Conversely, SU ranks 12th in the RPI and its SOS is 6.

Montana shoots 47 percent from the floor, including 39 percent from 3-point range, and averages 71.1 points. Montana allows 65 points a game and has been outrebounded by 1.2 rebounds a contest.

After Montana claimed the NCAA berth, Tinkle said, “It’s unbelievable. It’s fairy tale stuff. But when I snap myself back, it’s not a surprise because of the folks we’ve recruited here. Their character, make-up and what they stand for.’’

SU has already made one trip to California, having beaten San Diego State in the Battle of the Midway on Nov. 9 in San Diego.

“It’s easier because we’ve done it before and got used to the long plane ride,” said senior Brandon Triche. “We just have to be ready for anything. After what we accomplished in New York, I think we’re going in with a lot more confidence than a week ago.”

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