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An Endangered Garden Party For The Orange

 

San Diego State could be slotted in the West Region and play regional games (Sweet 16 and Elite 8) in Anaheim, Calif. The Aztecs went to Anaheim the last time they reached the Sweet 16, in 2011.

If Wichita State loses in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament and Wisconsin goes on a tear, winning out through the Big Ten Tournament, the Badgers could still conceivably reach the Midwest Regional in nearby Indianapolis.

Yet, entering the night of Tuesday, March 4, no team had more to lose in terms of its NCAA tournament travel plans than the Syracuse Orange. No team had the same path to the Final Four as Syracuse, which — when it won the national title in 2003 — was able to go through Albany, N.Y., as a No. 3 seed. Coach Jim Boeheim's team was buoyed by a raucous partisan crowd in a narrow Sweet 16 win over Auburn and an emotionally charged regional final triumph over top-seeded Oklahoma.

This year, Syracuse — which will still gain the benefit of an opening-weekend pod in Buffalo — had the chance to play in the East Regional at Madison Square Garden, a home away from home. Staying entirely in the state of New York until the Final Four was going to be the Orange's big advantage in this year's bracket.

The biggest development to emerge from Tuesday night in the world of college basketball — the story that genuinely altered the race for the national championship — is simply this: For the first time all season, Syracuse no longer controls its fate in terms of being able to stay in the East Region.

The Orange might be able to remain in the East if they win the ACC Tournament, but Syracuse — having been stung by the Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech — is now in a position where it must hope that other teams stumble. Earning a ticket to MSG is no longer in Syracuse's full control.

The reality of the situation is unsettling for a team that, until recently, was cruising along at a high altitude without a single loss: Syracuse can't say with 100 percent certainty that it will still throw a (Madison Square) Garden party on the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

If Kansas and Villanova win the rest of their games over the next week and a half, it is entirely reasonable to envision a scenario in which the Jayhawks and Wildcats will go 1-2 in the East Region. This will become a much more realistic possibility if Wichita State remains unbeaten and snags the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, thereby pushing Kansas to the East.

For these very reasons, Syracuse would love to see Wichita State lose. If WSU falls this upcoming weekend in Arch Madness, Kansas could potentially get the 1 seed in the Midwest, thereby freeing up the East Region to a greater extent and giving the Orange a pathway to the 2 seed in their own MSG backyard.

If you've been following the discussion of the bubble this past week, you've read about some counterintuitive notions that emerge this time of year. Teams on the bad side of the bubble want to play the toughest possible opponents, so that they can move way up the leaderboard in the event of a victory. That same dynamic now applies to Syracuse. If the Orange are going to stay in the East Region — the prize they desperately need to win if they're going to have a good shot at the Final Four — they have to do something more than merely win the ACC Tournament. To be much more specific about the matter, Syracuse must win the ACC Tournament by beating the toughest possible list of opponents. 

If Greensboro, N.C., becomes a home for upsets in the quarterfinals and semifinals, Syracuse could perhaps face Miami (quarters), North Carolina State (semis), and North Carolina (final) in its march to the ACC Tournament title. That path would not transform the Orange's resume to the extent that SU could expect to stay in the East as the 2 seed. (A No. 1 seed appears to be a remote possibility for Syracuse at this point — the most realistic scenario for staying in the East is to get a strong 2 seed.)

Syracuse — in order to regain the East Regional ticket it lost on Tuesday night against Georgia Tech — must face the heavy hitters in its first ACC Tournament. The quarterfinals won't offer a resume-changing foe, but if Syracuse can play — and beat — both Duke and Virginia in the semifinals and final, Madison Square Garden would remain in play. If Villanova then fails to win the Big East Tournament or Kansas loses in the Big 12 Tournament, Syracuse would probably regain its place in the East Region.

For now, though, the Orange — following their second unfathomable home-court loss to an ACC also-ran — do not call the shots in the battle for MSG. If Syracuse plays Duke in a potential ACC semifinal, that game could be an elimination game of sorts in terms of an MSG ticket. Yet, even if Syracuse wins that ACC semifinal (should it in fact occur), the Orange would probably need to follow that conquest with a win over Virginia in the ACC final, especially if Villanova and Kansas dominate their conference tournaments.

The Orange had Madison Square Garden in their hip pocket two weeks ago. Now, the Orange are getting squeezed out of the picture.

Things change abruptly in college basketball.

Welcome to yet another March — maddening, isn't it?

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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