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SportsColumnistsGreg Logan

Logan: In Survivor Big East, Syracuse, W. Va. last two standing

Syracuse's Andy Rautins signals against Gonzaga during the

Syracuse's Andy Rautins signals against Gonzaga during the second half of an NCAA second-round game in Buffalo, N.Y. (Mar. 21, 2010) Credit: AP


Big East blood was spilled from Spokane, Wash., where Marquette was eliminated, to Providence, R.I., where Villanova and Georgetown went down in ignominious fashion. But Buffalo's HSBC Arena provided an oasis from the bracket carnage for Syracuse and West Virginia, the only two survivors to reach the Sweet 16 out of a record-tying eight Big East invitees to the NCAA Tournament.

Last season, half the Final Four was made up of Big East teams. If Syracuse (30-4) and West Virginia (29-6) match that feat this season, it will be because they are the two most mentally tough and focused teams in the conference. The Orange destroyed a very talented Gonzaga team that many commentators pegged as a giant-killer, and the Mountaineers handled Missouri's relentless pressing defense Sunday, two performances as impressive as any of the elite seeds, with the possible exception of Kentucky.

Now Syracuse heads to Salt Lake City for the West Regional, where it faces another top mid-major in Butler on Thursday. West Virginia faces Washington, Marquette's conqueror, in Syracuse on Thursday in the East Regional.

The key to success in this tournament for Syracuse and West Virginia is that they didn't take themselves out with an uncharacteristic performance.

After watching Villanova lose to St. Mary's, which is in the same conference as Gonzaga, and seeing No. 1 overall seed Kansas slip on a banana peel called Northern Iowa, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim's team came out with purpose. "Yeah, you can say that," said Wesley Johnson, who scored a career-high 31 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in a show of dominance. "We're coming off the two-game losing streak before winning the previous game against Vermont. We came here and played our game of basketball."

West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler, who scored 28 points Sunday, took a similar serious approach. "I don't think of us as anything else other than underdogs," Butler said. "Always, I need that mentality."

If you don't come ready to play, there's a Northern Iowa out there waiting in ambush. "This is different than football," Boeheim said. "We find out in this tournament who the best teams really are. There's no doubt in my mind that Northern Iowa was better than Kansas Sunday. Northern Iowa made four or five bad turnovers at the end, or it would have been a 10-point game. St. Mary's outplayed Villanova.

"These are good teams. If you don't play well, you're going to get beat. Simple as that."

Boeheim paid respect to Butler, saying he's had the Bulldogs ranked in the top 10 all season on his poll ballot. Win that one, and the Orange face the Kansas State-Xavier winner for a trip to the Final Four in Indianapolis.

The road is tougher for West Virginia. If it beats Washington, it's likely Kentucky will be in the regional final unless the Wildcats develop a case of poison Ivy against Cornell. Kentucky is an offensive powerhouse, but West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said whoever plays the Mountaineers is "going to see a pretty good defensive team. It comes down to do we defend them better than they score?"

Boeheim sounds equally confident in his team's toughness. "This team has come to play every game," he said. Referring to an exhibition shocker in November, he said, "The only game they didn't win that they should have was when I coached against [Division III] Le Moyne like some kind of idiot."

Well, if you're going to lose to an inferior team, that's the right time. Not now, when the best have to play like it or go home.


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