Three Hits: Balanced, improved Syracuse cruises past Western Michigan

The Syracuse Orange are now 9-3 in NCAA Tournament games with senior forward C.J. Fair on the roster.

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The third-seeded Syracuse Orange utilized a balanced effort to dismantle 14-seed Western Michigan, logging a 77-53 win in Buffalo, N.Y., on Thursday afternoon. Here are three quick observations from the matchup:

Over the course of a 36-season career, there are bound to be March slip-ups.

Boeheim, the second-winningest coach in Division-I men’s basketball history, has, for the most part, been able to avoid such slip-ups in his program’s NCAA Tournament opening rounds. Since 1990, the Orange have suffered three true upsets in its Big Dance opener: dropping games to 15-seed Richmond (1991), 13-seed Vermont (2005) and 12-seed Texas A&M (2006). In fact, Boeheim’s teams have lost in their opening tournament game just four times in over three decades.

In all, the Syracuse coach’s teams have been just as likely to make the Final Four as they are to drop their tourney opener. That’s not easy for a program that makes the 68-team field as often as Syracuse does.

This game was no different. Syracuse, behind the efforts of a talented backcourt led by freshman Tyler Ennis, never relented against Western Michigan, the Mid-American Conference champions. The result was a 24-point blowout that saw this season’s one-time No. 1 team in cruise control, which is a much better position to be in compared to how Ennis & Co. wrapped up their ACC schedule.

Syracuse sputtered down the stretch last season, too. As prominent members of the now-dismantled Big East, the Orange could not regain their footing after falling to Villanova in a late January overtime game, ending the season on a 5-7 run including an embarrassing 61-39 loss to Georgetown in the regular season finale. Perhaps that loss woke them up.

The Orange, led by NBA draftee Michael Carter-Williams at point guard and sharpshooter James Southerland on the wing, built off a Big East Tournament finals appearance to rattle off four straight victories in the NCAA Tournament — beating Montana, California, Indiana and Marquette to give Boeheim his fourth Final Four appearance.

Could the third-seeded Orange be headed down a similar path?

Syracuse was simply not its early-season self down the stretch of the ACC schedule. Following a 25-0 start (joining Wichita State as the only undefeated team nationally in mid-February), Syracuse dropped five of its final seven games. That stretch was made even worse by the quality of the losses: Boston College, of all teams, ruined the unblemished record in an overtime thriller, lowly Georgia Tech earned a five-point win and N.C. State bounced Boeheim’s group in its ACC tourney opener.

The lethal zone, of course, has not changed much. Syracuse is a top-20 defense year after year, and during this event, if a team can not attack that 2-3 weapon and hit outside shots, it’s still a reliable standby. Shooting under such conditions is not the easiest of tasks. The undersized Broncos shot just 34.7 percent (22.2 percent from long range) on Thursday. The offense is basically the same, with Ennis not exactly being the hit-or-miss playmaker that Carter-Williams (who dominated at times in the 2013 NCAA Tournament) was, but rather more of a steadying presence that sets the stage for the likes of C.J. Fair, Jerami Grant and outside threat Trevor Cooney.

The path is similar. The parts are there. The question remains the final result.

It’s highly unlikely any team can rattle off 25 straight wins depending on just one or two players — even if those players are stars. When Syracuse was struggling, it wasn’t receiving consistent minutes from all over the roster: one or two players may have put up standout games, but those were nullified by duds from others.

That changed against Western Michigan, where four Orange starters finished in double figures scoring (Ennis, Fair, Grant, Cooney). The Orange spread the ball around and got into the lane for easy baskets, averaging 1.2 points per possession.

It was a big step forward as they move on to face 11-seed Dayton, which upset Ohio State with off-balance runner in the closing seconds of Thursday’s opening game. The Flyers are better in practically every aspect of the game (outside of getting to the free throw line, which the Broncos did 20 times against Syracuse) and they should be able to stretch the defense a little more than Western Michigan’s poor outside shooters — Dayton features four players that attempted 50 or more 3-pointers and hit them at a 39 percent clip or better this season.

They’ll need every bit of that (and probably more) against Syracuse if it plays the way it did in its opener. Boeheim’s team does not look like it is going to depart quietly from the tourney field. This was not an Orange team that lost five of its past seven games; this was a former No. 1 playing like its back on track now that tournament time is here.