Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has made a concession for his thin roster – shorter practices and more sleep, especially for the Big Three.
Good formula so far.
The Orange, the last team selected for the NCAA Tournament, survived to play another day, holding off Arizona State 60-56 on Wednesday night in the First Four.
Syracuse guards Tyus Battle and Frank Howard are 1-2 in the nation in minutes played and freshman Oshae Brissett is sixth, all of them averaging at least 38 per game. Despite recovering from a case of strep, Howard never sat and neither did Battle as the trio, led by Brissett’s 23 points and 12 rebounds, combined to score 50 points.
“These two guys are amazing,” Boeheim said at the podium afterward, looking over at Howard and Battle. “They’re going up against tremendous defensive teams all year long. They get doubled in everything every time they come off a screen.
“It’s difficult to win when you’ve got three guys scoring. If they’re off a little bit, it puts all the pressure back on our defense.”
That defense rose to the occasion, holding Arizona State to a season low in scoring.
“It was a rock fight,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said. “We didn’t make enough shots.”
EYES ON CATS: The Arizona Wildcats will be in the spotlight when they open play against Buffalo, and coach Sean Miller and star freshman forward Deandre Ayton will be a focus as college basketball’s season of scandal nears a climax. Miller missed one game and three practices late last month after ESPN reported he discussed a $100,000 payment to Ayton. Miller repudiated the report in a statement two weeks ago and the players don’t seem fazed.
“I think off-the-court stuff, we don’t really worry about that,” guard Rawle Alkins said. “We focus on the court, on the task at hand, this week, and we just take everything game by game.”
Added Miller: “Sometimes when adversity strikes it can really rally a group of people, can bring out a closeness that maybe you otherwise would not have felt. And I believe that about our team.”
KANSAS DEJA VU: A year ago Frank Mason III was the catalyst for the Kansas Jayhawks and consensus national player of the year. This year it’s been Devonte’ Graham’s turn at the helm, and the senior has responded by leading Kansas to its 14th straight Big 12 regular-season title, putting him in the hunt for national POY. He’s already received the league honor and this week was named a finalist for the Naismith Award.
“I don’t really know what to say right now, but it hasn’t really hit me yet,” Graham said. “But that’s an individual award. You know, I’m more of a team guy. So I focus on the team and trying to get past this first game.”
Graham’s value cannot be underestimated on a team that lost seven games and won the Big 12 Tournament without 7-footer Udoka Azubuike, who sat out with a knee injury but is expected back in the lineup.
NEW YORK STATE OF MIND: The bellwether of NCAA Tournament basketball in upstate New York is usually perennial power Syracuse, but the Orange have company this year with western New York schools St. Bonaventure and Buffalo, and they’re ready to make some noise of their own.
In fact, the Bonnies, seeded 11th in the East, already have. They beat UCLA in the First Four – their first NCAA Tournament victory since 1970 and the days of Bob Lanier – then quickly jetted to Dallas where they’ll play sixth-seeded Florida on Thursday night.
St. Bonaventure has set a school record for wins in a season with 26 and will be trying to win two games in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since that banner year nearly a half-century ago when it beat Davidson, North Carolina State and Villanova before losing to Jacksonville, the defeat coming with an injured Lanier on the bench.
“This victory is for those guys. They didn’t get an opportunity to show their talent,” Bonnies coach Mark Schmidt said of that team led by Lanier. “Bonaventure is a unique, special place … and it has great basketball tradition.”
Buffalo won the Mid-American Conference title and opens play against fourth-seeded Arizona in the South Regional.
“Oh, man, it’s going to be special. Hopefully, I can get past the jitters,” Bulls guard Wes Clark said.
PICK TWO: Congratulations Tom Izzo and Geno Auriemma. Former President Barack Obama has picked your teams to win it all in his NCAA Tournament brackets.
Obama has Michigan State winning the men’s title and – no surprises – UConn winning the women’s championship.
Obama has the Spartans beating Bucknell, Syracuse, Duke, and top-seeded Kansas to reach the Final Four along with defending national champion North Carolina, Villanova, and Virginia. Then he has Michigan State topping Villanova in the national semifinals and Virginia, the tournament’s top seed, for the national championship.
On the women’s side, Obama has the unbeaten Huskies, the overall No. 1 seed, defeating Saint Francis, Quinnipiac, Duke, and South Carolina to reach the Final Four along with Louisville, Notre Dame and Mississippi State. UConn beats longtime rival Notre Dame in the national semifinals and Mississippi State for the title.
The picks were posted Wednesday on the Obama Foundation’s website. Last year he picked the North Carolina men and UConn women to win, and at least the Tar Heels obliged. The Huskies had their 111-game winning streak snapped by Mississippi State in last year’s Final Four.
It’s unclear whether President Donald Trump will fill out a bracket . He declined an invitation last year from ESPN to do so on-air, as Obama did during his presidency.
GET SHORTY: Demonstrae Jefferson is only 5-foot-7, but the Texas Southern guard sure plays big. He scored 25 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a 64-46 rout of North Carolina Central in the First Four on Wednesday night. Jefferson and Miami freshman Chris Lykes, also 5-7, are the shortest players in the tournament.
For the 150-pound Jefferson, it was simply a good time to send a reminder to all the teams that passed him by.
“Yeah, when I do play those teams I kind of have an extra edge on my shoulder, like, you kind of missed out on the blessing,” he said.
FIRST TIME A CHARM? No fewer than 15 teams in the tournament are being led by head coaches who have never coached in the Big Dance. Among them are Avery Johnson at Alabama, Loyola-Chicago’s Porter Moser, LaVall Jordan at Butler, Travis DeCuire at Montana, and 70-year-old Dan D’Antoni at Marshall . D’Antoni, who took over at his alma mater four years ago, is the older brother of Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni and played point guard for Marshall in the 1960s.
The list of coaches who won the title on their first try include: UConn’s Kevin Ollie (2014), Steve Fisher at Michigan (1989), George Ireland at Loyola-Chicago (1963), and Fred Taylor at Ohio State (1960) with the likes of Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Bob Knight on the roster.
AP Sports Writers Dave Skretta in Kansas and John Marshall in Boise, Idaho, contributed.
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