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SportsColumnistsGreg Logan

Syracuse has smooth road to Final Four

Rick Jackson of the Syracuse Orange huddles with

Rick Jackson of the Syracuse Orange huddles with his team against the Georgetown Hoyas during the Big East quarterfinals. (March 11, 2010) Photo Credit: Getty

Syracuse really can't complain despite being placed atop the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament. It wasn't the injury to center Arinze Onuaku that hurt the Orange as much as the fact they lost their last regular-season game and then immediately bowed out in the first Big East Tourney game.

No team that has lost the first game it played in its conference tournament ever has gone on to win the NCAA title. As it turns out, however, Syracuse has a great chance to be the first to overcome that trend. The Orange will play their first two games in Buffalo, where they will have overwhelming support from their fan base just down I-90.

The Orange might face a long road in the sense they must ship to Salt Lake City for the regional finals, but it's not a particularly tough road. The toughest teams in their bracket are third-seeded Pittsburgh, which did beat them once this season, and Kansas State, the Big 12 runner-up. It's also possible they could run into mid-majors Gonzaga and Butler, but the Zags would come in the second round and would face a hostile crowd after traveling across the country.

The team that got handed a brutal bracket is Big East Tournament champion West Virginia, which also will be in Buffalo for the first two rounds. The Mountaineers should coast against Morgan State and then the Clemson-Missouri winner, but it's quite possible they will run into tough Big East foe Marquette in the Sweet 16 at Syracuse in the East Regional. First, the Golden Eagles would have to get past Mountain West regular-season champion New Mexico in the second round, but that looks like an upset waiting to happen.

Ordinarily, teams from the same conference aren't supposed to meet before the Elite Eight, but tournament chairman Dan Guerrero said they tried to avoid it but were able to justify it because they met only once previously this season. Ultimately, Kentucky, which is considered the second overall seed in the entire tournament, lies at the end of the regional road for the Mountaineers. We'll see if their metro-area lineup is tough enough to handle all those obstacles to reach the Final Four in Indianapolis.

Duke, which last reached the Final Four in 2004, got some breaks from the committee. The Blue Devils have three Big East teams in the bracket, but potential second-round opponent Louisville is the weakest league entrant, and Notre Dame and second-seeded Villanova are on the other side of the bracket. The Wildcats also have lost six of their past 10 games. West Virginia would have made a much tougher opponent and fit better in the South Regional.

No. 1 overall seed Kansas deservedly has clear sailing to the Midwest Regional final, where it is likely to meet the Ohio State-Georgetown survivor. Georgetown began the Big East Tournament as an eighth seed but has climbed to a third seed line in the NCAAs and obviously is playing its best basketball at the right time.

If you're looking for interesting first-round games, there are several. In the West Regional pod at Buffalo, Gonzaga meets Florida State of the overrated ACC, and out in San Jose, there's an intriguing matchup between fifth-seeded Butler and 12th-seeded UTEP, the Conference USA regular-season champ. In the South Regional pod in Providence, St. Mary's, which upset Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference tourney, meets Richmond of the Atlantic 10 in another mid-major clash.

In the Midwest, Missouri Valley champion Northern Iowa, seeded ninth, takes on eighth-seeded UNLV of the Mountain West in the first round for the chance to play Kansas in the second round. In the East, 12th-seeded Ivy League champion Cornell could pose a surprisingly strong test for fifth-seeded A-10 champ Temple.


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