The Syracuse Orange spring into action this seeded Bulldogs of Asheville in second-round play from the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
Syracuse enters the 2012 tournament as the second-ranked team in the country, yet needed an at-large berth after falling to Cincinnati in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament last week. The Orange earned the conference tourney's top seed as Big East regular-season champs after a 17-1 showing, going on to defeat UConn in the quarterfinals before suffering just its second loss all season to the Bearcats via a 71-68 final. Syracuse (31-2) saw its only other defeat way back on Jan. 21 at Notre Dame, which is also in this year's NCAA field. The Orange are making their 35th appearance in the NCAA Tournament, holding a 53-34 all-time record, with 29 of those appearances coming under the tutelage of Naismith Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim. This is the third time Syracuse has donned the status of a No. 1 seed in the tournament, having earned that right in two of the last three seasons. The Orange were a three- seed as an at-large team in the 2011 tourney, knocking off Indiana State in the second round before falling to Marquette. Syracuse has a rich history in this event, making four Final Four appearances, the last culminating in the program's lone NCAA championship in 2003.
UNC-Asheville is making its second consecutive appearance at the Big Dance after capturing the Big South Conference Tournament crown for the second year in a row. The Bulldogs set a school record with 24 wins this season and were 16-2 in league play, entering this matchup on a five-game winning streak after posting a convincing 80-64 victory against VMI in the Big South title game. UNC-Asheville has made a total of three appearances in the NCAA Tournament and each time as a 16-seed. In fact, the program finds itself in familiar territory having garnered a second-round matchup against last year's Big East regular-season champ and No. 1 seed Pittsburgh in 2011. The Bulldogs took a 71-47 defeat in that one but not before scoring an 81-77 win over Arkansas- Little Rock as part of the inaugural "First Four" round put into place for last year's expansion to a field of 68 teams. Asheville is 2-2 all-time in tournament action, with both wins coming in play-in games.
Syracuse has won each of its three all-time meetings with UNC-Asheville. The last encounter between these programs came back in 2003 at the Carrier Dome -- an 81-63 final.
It's no surprise that the Orange represent one of the most balanced and well- rounded teams in the tournament after securing the second overall seed behind Kentucky. Syracuse ranks sixth in the country in scoring margin at plus-14.2, boasting the Big East's second-ranked offense with 74.6 points per game and third-ranked defense (60.4 ppg). Along those same lines, Syracuse shoots a league-high 46.5 percent from the field while holding the opposition to a mere 38.5 shooting percentage -- good for third in the Big East. However, things took a dramatic change for the Orange on the eve of the tournament as the NCAA ruled sophomore Fab Melo ineligible for the remainder of the season due to his academics. Melo took a huge step forward this season, earning Big East Defensive Player of the Year accolades for posting a team-high 5.8 rebounds and ranking second in the conference with 2.9 blocks. Melo added 7.8 ppg and stands third in the conference in field-goal percentage (.566). Meanwhile, senior Kris Joseph is at the head of the Orange scoring attack, averaging 13.8 ppg while dropping a team-high 50 three-pointers on 36.2 percent shooting. Big East Sixth Man of the Year Dion Waiters is just as valuable in providing 12.6 ppg as a reserve, with the sophomore shooting 48.1 percent from the floor and ranking fifth in the league with 1.9 steals per game. The rest of the Orange will have to step up without the services of Melo with experienced scorers junior Brandon Triche (9.3 ppg), sophomore C.J. Fair (8.6 ppg) and senior Scoop Jardine (8.3 ppg) in the fold. Fair also chips in 5.5 rpg while Jardine hands out 4.7 assists per contest. Joseph adds 4.9 rebounds to the mix but the 'Cuse stood just 14th in the Big East this year in rebounding margin at minus-1.3 (36.7-35.3).
The Bulldogs similarly dominated their own conference, leading the Big South in scoring at 81.2 ppg with a top-ranked scoring margin of plus-9.9. However, Asheville's defense isn't exactly what you would classify as shutdown, surrendering 71.3 ppg to rank seventh in the 11-team league. But the Bulldogs bank on offense first and foremost, connecting on a crisp 48.4 percent of their field goals and leading the conference with a 76.2 percent free-throw percentage. A good deal of the Bulldogs' bite comes from the backcourt where a pair of sharp-shooting seniors pace the offense. Matt Dickey tops the roster with his 16.5 ppg while J.P. Primm puts up 15.3 ppg and stands third in the conference with 71 threes on 36.0 percent shooting. Primm also ranks fourth in league play with 4.2 assists per game while Dickey is the Big South's second- best free-throw shooter (86.5 percent). The contributions to the team's overall scoring ability don't stop there, with three additional double-figure scorers on the roster. Senior Chris Stephenson records a solid 13.1 ppg and 6.3 rebounds while junior Jeremy Atkinson leads the team in rebounding with 6.6 per contest and adds 11.7 ppg on 54.1 percent shooting from the floor. Finally, Jaron Lane produces 11.3 ppg and lands a cool 57.1 percent of his field goals.