NCAA BK

Syracuse scuffling down the stretch

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP)

From his first time on the floor at Syracuse, junior forward C.J. Fair has always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, snaring rebounds, hitting midrange jumpers, tossing in the occasional 3-pointer, and blocking shots.

''He understands the game. He's in the right places. He knows where he should be,'' coach Jim Boeheim said. ''He's got a very economical game. He's a very efficient player. He knows exactly what he has to do and he gets it done. He gets better all the time.''

Fair has been the steadiest player on the court this season for the Orange (22-6, 10-5 Big East), averaging 14.4 points and 7.3 rebounds, and shooting 82.1 percent of his free throws.

''Without him, I don't know where we'd be,'' senior guard Brandon Triche said. ''I don't even want to think about it.''

Now, Fair just needs his teammates to join him.

After being ranked in the Top 10 for much of the season, Syracuse has been knocked down a few notches. Since its most impressive win of the season, a 70-68 road victory over then-No. 1 Louisville, Syracuse has gone 5-5 in the Big East and dropped to No. 12 in the AP top 25.

On Saturday morning, the Orange were ranked eighth and tied for first place in the conference with Georgetown and Marquette. When they went to bed early Tuesday, they were tied for fourth with No. 21 Notre Dame after losses to the Hoyas at home and Golden Eagles on the road.

And now, 10th-ranked Louisville (23-5, 11-4) is coming to town on Saturday looking for a little payback against a team that's lost two straight and three of five in the most difficult part of its schedule.

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''We played six games in 14 days. Teams have rough patches,'' assistant coach Mike Hopkins said. ''We need to be playing our best basketball coming into the Big East tournament and the NCAA tournament.

''Our overall body of work has been great, but we want to get better. We wish we were playing better, but it's part of playing in the Big East. You've just got to stay positive. You want to play your best basketball at the right time.''

When senior forward James Southerland, Syracuse's trigger man from the outside, missed six games due to an academic eligibility issue that was eventually resolved, the Orange went 4-2, losing at Villanova and Pitt. In the six games since Southerland's return, he's been an offensive catalyst, averaging 14.3 points, and the Orange have gone 4-2. The biggest disappointment by far was the humbling 57-46 loss to Georgetown in front of a record crowd of 35,012. The disheartening loss in the last Big East game between the teams in the Carrier Dome snapped the Orange's 38-game home winning streak.

''We have to be tougher just as a team in general, not get pushed around, just making the tough plays, the game-winning plays,'' Triche said. ''A lot of times, other teams make those plays. I think I could play better. I think I could lead the team better. I'll do the best I can to fix that.''

There's some sort of consolation here, though, for the Orange faithful.

Although they weren't ranked when they beat Syracuse, Villanova (18-11, 9-7) also has defeated UConn, Louisville and Marquette to stake their claim to an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament. Pitt is ranked 23rd, Georgetown is No. 7 and riding a 10-game winning streak, Marquette is No. 22, and Connecticut, which is ineligible to play in the postseason, has played well, too. The Huskies, determined not to lose at home, beat Syracuse 66-58 two weeks ago in the last Big East game between those heated rivals and took the Hoyas to double overtime Wednesday night before losing 79-78.

So, it's not like Syracuse is losing to cupcakes.

''I guess we spoil everybody with winning all the time, so when you lose a few games it's the end of the world,'' Triche said. ''But if you look up at the national championship (Syracuse) team (in 2003), we lost five games. We're at six. Anything can happen.''

During its swoon, Syracuse thumped Providence 84-59 as sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams helped dismantle the Friars with 15 points, 12 assists and just two turnovers. That prompted the losing coach to make a poignant observation.

''He played one of his better games in a long time,'' Providence's Ed Cooley said. ''If he's making assists for other guys, they're really good. When he's not, they don't play well.''

Tagged: Marquette, Louisville, Georgetown, Brandon Triche, C.J. Fair, Syracuse

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