(4) Syracuse vs. (13) Montana
(4) Syracuse Orange
Even though the Orange (26-9, 11-7) lost Kris Joseph, Dion Waiters, Scoop Jardine and Fab Melo, head coach Jim Boeheim had quiet confidence that his returning players would be able to fill their shoes quite nicely. He’s turned out to be right as C.J. Fair, Brandon Triche, James Southerland and Michael Carter-Williams have thrived in their expanded roles. This year’s team plays Coach Boeheim’s patented 2-3 zone just about as well as any team he’s had. They’re one of the best shotblocking teams in the country, blocking 6.5 shots on average. They’re also great at creating steals, getting 9.2 a night. Overall defensively they allow 59 points on 37 percent shooting from the field and 29 percent from deep. Carter-Williams runs the show at the point and has plenty of options. However, if this team has one glaring weakness it’s their three-point shooting. They only make five a game at a 31 percent clip. They struggled against the RPI top 25, going just 1-4. Twenty of their wins have come against teams outside of the RPI top 50. Beating the Orange requires a great zone offense and the ability to contain out on the perimeter defensively.
(13) Montana Grizzlies
The Grizzlies (25-6, 19-1) were the Big Sky’s best team in both the regular season and conference tournament. As a result they are back in the big dance for the third time in four years. They enter the tournament as winners of their last six games, playing the 240th toughest schedule in the country and finishing with a RPI just inside the top 75. They fell by seven to Colorado State, their only opponent with a top 50 RPI. Their best wins came against Weber State, who they beat at home twice. Unfortunately, the Grizzlies are coming into the tournament hobbled as Mathias Ward’s season is over due to a foot injury. Ward was the team’s leading scorer with 14.8 a contest. They were able to remain the premiere team in the Big Sky, but they’ll definitely miss Ward as they look to pull off an upset and win a tournament game for the third time in program history. The Grizzlies have a talented backcourt in Kareem Jamar and Will Cherry. With Ward out, the Grizzlies’ upset bid is reliant on them. Battling to at least a standstill on the boards will also be vital for Grizzlies.
HOOPWORLD’s Pick: Syracuse. The Orange’s zone defense will prove to be too problematic for the Grizzlies to score against.