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Syracuse draws No. 3 seed in NCAA tournament, to face Western Michigan

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SYRACUSE — Syracuse was pretty certain it was going to stay in-state for its first two games in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

The Orange made sure of that with that 25-0 start. And even though the team stumbled to the finish, losing five of the last six, Jim Boeheim’s club was rewarded with a trip to Buffalo to begin its quest for back-to-back Final Fours.

Now the Orange have to prove itself worthy of a No. 3 seed, and that its recent struggles are not an indication of what it can accomplish over the next three weeks.

The Orange (27-5) drew No. 14 Western Michigan (23-9), the Mid-American Conference tournament champion, in a South Region second-round game to be played at around 2:45 p.m. Thursday at the First Niagara Center. It will be televised by CBS on WWNY-TV7.

Should SU win, it would play either No. 6 Ohio State (25-9) or No. 11 Dayton (23-10) on Saturday in the third round at a time to be announced.

Although the Orange missed out on a chance to advance to Madison Square Garden and the East Regional with its recent slide, there is somewhat of a comfort level going to Buffalo. SU has some good memories there after winning two games in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

“I think it is good to play in Buffalo. It is close by, but where you play isn’t going to have as much of an effect as how you play,” Boeheim said. “How you play is what really matters. We are happy to be in Buffalo, but it is just about playing. You have to play well.”

SU senior C. J. Fair said the chance to play in front of plenty of Orange fans is a great opportunity.

“To have a big fan base supporting you at the game is definitely exciting,” Fair said. “We just have to go out there and play and give the fans something to cheer for.”

As the No. 1 seed in the West Region in Buffalo four years ago, SU beat Vermont (79-56) and then Gonzaga (87-65), playing without injured center Arinze Onuaku. The Orange then lost to eventual regional champion Butler, 63-59, in Salt Lake City in the regional semifinals.

Boeheim said Sunday night he and his staff were just beginning to study Western Michigan, but he expects a tough game.

“From what we’ve seen so far, they are a very good basketball team,” Boeheim said. “They won a very difficult conference and the conference tournament. We know it is a tremendous challenge for our players and our team.”

Western Michigan is one of the hottest teams in the country heading into the tournament.

The Broncos have won nine of their last 10 games, including an impressive 98-77 win over Toledo in the Mid-American Conference title game last Saturday in Cleveland.

Their only loss in the last 13 games was a 96-85 road defeat versus Toledo.

Five of the Broncos’ losses came in the nonconference portion of their schedule. They lost to Hawaii (78-68), North Dakota State (83-74), Northwestern (51-35), Drake (71-68) and Missouri (66-60). North Dakota State and New Mexico also are in the NCAA field.

Other conference losses were at Eastern Michigan (56-37), Bowling Green (69-64) and at Buffalo (84-63).

The Broncos last made a cameo appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2004, falling to Vanderbilt as a No. 11 seed. Since then, they’ve never done worse than a tie for third in the MAC’s West Division. But they hadn’t done better than reach the NIT since 2005.

The Broncos are led by MAC Tournament MVP David Brown, a 6-foot-4 senior guard, who scored 32 points in the title game and averages 19.4 points.

Shayne Whittington is a 6-11 center who averages 16.3 points and a team-leading 9.1 rebounds.

Boeheim said regardless of the opponent, it’s about his team playing up to its potential and doing what it does best.

“We played a tremendous game against Florida State less than a week ago, so I am confident we will play well this week,” he said. “We played well for the most part against N.C. State (in an ACC quarterfinal loss). We shot the ball poorly and when that happens it happens. I think getting everyone back together is huge for us. I am as confident of this team going into this tournament right now as I was last year of the team.”

Jerami Grant, who missed most of three games with a bad back, appears fully healthy again. And Boeheim said the ankle that Trevor Cooney sprained early in the N.C. State game is much better, and that his sophomore shooting guard should be at full strength by Thursday.

Said Fair: “I think our confidence level is there. We fought hard in the N.C. State game, we just came up short. Everyone on the team knows what we’re facing going into the tournament. You’re guaranteed one game and you have to fight to get that extra game so you want to fight each game.”

Fair also said that the experience gained from last year’s NCAA run “helps us because we went through a lot last year. Guys have been on the big stage before. They know how to conduct and handle themselves. There’s not going to be any surprises.”

This will be Syracuse’s 37th trip to the NCAA Tournament. SU is 2-0 all-time against Western Michigan, last beating the Broncos in 1988.

Boeheim said this is “a fresh start for us. What we did during the regular season or the tournament doesn’t matter now. This is what you play 31 games for, to get into this tournament.”

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