Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, March 20, 2013 | 2 p.m.
The brackets are out and the Las Vegas Sun sports team is here to discuss UNLV's draw as the 5-seed in San Jose, Calif., and a rematch with Cal.
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UNLV’s priority is to take care of itself and snap a four-game NCAA Tournament losing streak. The Rebels have their chance to do that Thursday against Cal at 4:27 p.m. in the HP Pavilion on truTV.
The rest of us, though, are free to look ahead on the bracket, and that’s exactly what we’re doing here. If UNLV wins, it would face the winner of No. 4 Syracuse (26-9) vs. No. 13 Montana (25-6).
The Orange are heavy favorites, despite losing seven of their last 12 regular-season games and four of the last five before making a 3-1 run in the Big East tournament. This game will start about 30 minutes after the end of UNLV-Cal, so if the Rebels win, you can use this as a scouting report of what to watch for from each team:
1. The Syracuse zone
Should both UNLV and Syracuse advance, we’ll go into this much more in depth in the coming days. But it’s worth leading off with now, too, because it’s just that important. There have already been countless words devoted to coach Jim Boeheim’s simple yet infuriating 2-3 zone defense, but here are a few more.
The beauty is in the simplicity. Syracuse is good enough to get really good to great players consistently, and they are most often long, athletic guys who can clog up passing lanes with their reach. As Michael Rosenberg wrote last year on SI.com, “The Syracuse zone seems to feature five men and 27 arms.”
The Orange players don’t have to spend a lot of time in practice working on what their opponent does offensively. Boeheim has said he doesn’t rely on a lot of film, because what a team does against a man-to-man defense doesn’t apply, and neither does what they do against a bad zone.
What that means is Syracuse can just focus on itself. Over time, that’s a huge advantage when you consider how much time most teams spend preparing for each opponent.
2. Montana’s health
The Grizzlies haven’t had a lot of luck on the injury front this year. Senior guard Will Cherry missed the first seven games, including a seven-point loss to Colorado State, because of a broken foot.
Cherry reinjured that foot at the end of February and missed three more games before returning for the team’s run to the Big Sky tournament championship. However, Montana had to do that without leading scorer Mathias Ward (14.8 points per game), a senior forward whose college career came to an end around the same time Cherry reinjured his foot.
Ward came down wrong on someone’s foot and on March 7 he was ruled out for the rest of the year after undergoing surgery. It was a big loss, though junior Spencer Coleman has filled in admirably down low. Plus, the Grizzlies still have league MVP Kareem Jamar and a seemingly healthy Cherry, the league’s defensive player of the year, on the perimeter.
Still, against a tough Syracuse team, the Grizzlies would love to have their senior big man available.
3. Syracuse investigation
CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd reported Wednesday afternoon that Syracuse is under investigation by the NCAA. The details aren’t all there, though a source told Dodd the investigation is wide-ranging and spans years. The money quote is right here:
“Throw a dart at the [NCAA] Manual [and you would hit a violation by Syracuse].”
The Orange are familiar with distractions. Last year, they started with the Bernie Fine investigation and then, after earning a No. 1 seed in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, they found out center Fab Melo was ineligible due to academic issues. Syracuse still advanced to the Elite Eight.
So, really, if there’s any team equipped to play well despite the noise swirling around them this time of year, it’s Syracuse.
4. Montana’s free throws
The Grizzlies are the seventh best team in the country at getting to the free-throw line, according to kenpom.com. In a game they hope comes down to the final minutes, that could be a big help to the 12 1/2-point underdogs.
Overall, the team shoots 76.8 percent at the free-throw line. For a comparison, Syracuse hits 67.5 from the line. Again, it’s a long shot the game is even close, but if it is Montana does have that advantage going for it.
5. Can Montana make 3-pointers?
This is tied in to the Syracuse defense discussion, but it’s important to look at it from the other side, too, because Montana is one of the best shooting teams in the country. The Grizzlies hit 37.8 percent on 3s (31st in the country) and 52.5 percent on 2s (22nd), according to kenpom.
The zone defense figures to give Montana plenty of open looks from outside, but the Grizzlies could be just the team to make the Orange pay for that. It’s a long shot — there’s a reason this is a 13-4 game — but it’s not inconceivable.