By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Basketball Editor
FACTS & STATS: Site: HP Pavilion (18,549) -- San Jose, California. Television: truTV. NCAA Record: Montana 2-10, Syracuse 56-36. Series Record: First meeting.
GAME NOTES: As they celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their last national championship, the fourth-seed Syracuse Orange will battle the Big Sky Conference champion Montana Grizzlies in the second round of the NCAA Tournament's East Region at HP Pavilion on Thursday night.
The Grizzlies had a stranglehold on the Big Sky all season save for the thorn in their side that was Weber State. However the Grizzlies vanquished the Wildcats, 67-64, in Saturday's conference championship game to take the league once and for all and earn their second straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The Grizzlies were taken out in the second round last season and have just two wins all-time in the Big Dance. At 25-6 and with wins in six- straight contests, Montana is not a team to be overlooked.
It was 10 years ago that freshman Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara led Syracuse to the 2003 National Championship game where they took down Kansas 81-78 thanks to a block from Hakim Warrick in the final seconds. Syracuse has made four straight trips to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year hiatus in 2007 and 2008. This season the Orange were considered a team in the running for a No. 1 seed but they had losses in four of their last five regular-season games before making a run to the Big East Tournament title game.
Prior to Wednesday's matchup these teams had never faced off on the hardwood. Whichever wins their first meeting will get the chance to face either fifth- seed UNLV or 12th-seed California in the third round.
Though it had its lead cut to just two points twice in the final 20 seconds, Montana held off Weber State to collect the Big Sky Tournament title. It was a tight battle between the two rivals with just three instances where the teams were separated by more than five points.
Kareem Jamar (14.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 4.1 apg) and Will Cherry (13.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.1 apg) do just about everything for the Grizzlies. The backcourt tandem was at it again versus Weber State as they combined for 39 points, eight assists and eight rebounds in the winning effort. Montana managed to survive its Big Sky schedule after leading scorer Mathias Ward (14.8 ppg) went down with an injured foot in mid-February but it remains to be seen how it will fare against elevated competition. If they are to win, the Grizzlies will need to keep up their strong efforts on the offensive end where they score 71.1 points per game and net 47.4 percent from the field.
After an emotional win over long-time rival Georgetown in the semifinals, Syracuse's last taste of the Big East wasn't a good one as it was stung, 78-61, by Louisville. The Orange had a 16-point lead in the second half but it was erased quickly by the Cardinals who hit 53.3 percent from the field in the period, while the Orange cooled to 33.3 percent while registering just six field goals.
Despite that bump in the road Syracuse has been a very strong defensive team this season holding foes to just 60.1 points per game on 37.7 percent shooting. Each of those marks is among the 30 best in the country. However the Orange have shown an inability to consistently get points on the board recently. C.J. Fair (14.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg) is the most consistent scorer for the Orange and with his length creates matchup problems for opposing squads. Michael Carter-Williams (12.0 ppg, 7.7 apg, 2.7 spg) is feisty on both ends but he isn't a strong shooter. Brandon Triche (13.8 ppg) has also been erratic offensively down the stretch. Meanwhile James Southerland (13.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg) has had the hot hand, especially from long range, as he proved in the Big East Tournament when he hit an event record 19 triples.
Not having Ward for this contest certainly hinders the Grizzlies' hopes at an upset. Jim Boeheim will have his Orange ready to lock up Jamar and Cherry and as long as they can hit shots consistently themselves, the Orange should find themselves in the next round.