No. 1 seed Syracuse remembers Vermont

The surroundings will be familiar to Syracuse, and so will the

opponent.

The third-ranked Orange (28-4) were awarded a No. 1 seed in the

NCAA tournament, and their opener on Friday in Buffalo, N.Y., a 2

1/2-hour drive away, will be against 16th seed Vermont (25-9).

Yes, those Catamounts.

Vermont, champions of the America East Conference, beat Syracuse

60-57 in overtime in the first round of the 2005 NCAA tournament, a

stinging loss the Orange have not forgotten. Syracuse had finished

the 2004-05 regular season at 24-6 and captured the Big East

tournament title before losing to the Catamounts.

“When I saw that name pop up, it fired me up a little bit,”

said fifth-year senior Andy Rautins, who grew up in Syracuse. “I

think everybody around Syracuse took that loss to heart. It’s

definitely going to be a payback game.”

Kansas, Kentucky and Duke won their conference tournaments and

were awarded the top three seeds when the selection committee

rolled out its 65-team bracket on Sunday.

The Orange, meanwhile, were ranked No. 1 for a week this season

but entered the NCAA tournament having lost two straight. An injury

to starting center Arinze Onuaku in the Big East tournament –

coupled with losing that quarterfinal game to Georgetown – most

likely relegated Syracuse to the West region and behind Duke as the

last of the top seeds.

The players were unfazed by the seedings, preferring to focus

only on the next game.

“This tournament is filled with a lot of winning teams,” said

Wes Johnson, Big East player of the year. “There’s no real bad

teams. You’ve got to be strong, just play tough. We don’t want to

go home. We’ve worked too hard. We want to take it to the last

game.”

This will be Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s 27th trip to the NCAA

tournament and just his second as a top seed.

“We’re proud to be a No. 1 seed,” Boeheim said. “This team

has worked extremely hard, been consistent all year. Obviously, the

tournament is always going to be challenging. It’ll be challenging

right off the bat.”

Syracuse, which won the regular-season Big East title for only

the second time, is a top seed for the first time since 1980. The

1979-80 team finished the regular season at 25-3, lost to

Georgetown in the Big East tournament, and then lost in the second

round of the NCAA tournament to Iowa, 88-77, when the tournament

had a field of 48.

Vermont, which has won 11 of its last 12 games, will be making

its fourth trip to the tournament and first since that shocking

upset five years ago.

Boeheim said the Orange most likely will play without Onuaku, a

fifth-year senior who hurt his right quadriceps against the Hoyas

on Thursday. If Onuaku cannot play, Rick Jackson will take over at

center and 6-foot-11 freshman Dashonte Riley will be the backup.

Kris Joseph, the first player off the bench during the season, will

start.

“I would be very skeptical of him (Onuaku) playing this

weekend,” Boeheim said. “That could change at the end of the

week, but that’s my thinking right now.”

The 6-9, 260-pound Onuaku said he has been undergoing treatment

since the team returned from New York and has not done any running.

He said the decision on whether he plays would be made after

speaking with team doctors and Boeheim.

“I’m looking at it positive, taking it day by day,” said

Onuaku, the school’s career leader in field-goal percentage (64.9)

who was averaging 10.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game this

season. “It’s getting better, so I’m hoping for the best.”

Although no team has lost its first game in a conference

tournament and gone on to win the national title, Syracuse also has

never made it as far as the round of 16 after winning the Big East

tournament. Its Final Four runs in 1987 and 1996 came after losses

in the conference tournament finals.