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Pitoniak: Cuse in toughest region

Orange should beat Indiana State, then what?

Cuse in toughest region

Reported by Scott Pitoniak

Unless Larry Bird has some eligibility remaining at Indiana State, I don�t see the 14th-seeded Sycamores beating third-seeded Syracuse in the opening round of the NCAA East Regional Friday.

That�s not to say the Orange men can afford to take ISU lightly. Led by 6-foot-4 freshman point guard Jake Odum, Indiana State won the rugged Missouri Valley Conference and showed its mettle against two Big East opponents � losing a hard-fought game to the Irish at Notre Dame and beating league-doormat DePaul handily. Although their record is just 20-13, the Sycamores are riding a five-game win streak.

Still, they are on the smallish side with no regular player taller than 6-8, so I think Rick Jackson and maybe even emerging freshman center Fab Melo can do some damage inside and wear them down.

After the opener, the Orange men�s road to the Final Four will feature some huge potholes.

SU�s second-round matchup Sunday will be against either Xavier or Marquette, two teams that are quite capable of bouncing the Orange men if they aren�t at the top of their game. Xavier has a bevy of shooters who could rain 3s over the SU zone. And Marquette knocked off its fellow Big East foe, 76-70, January 29 in Milwaukee. Of course, that was when the Orange was in the throes of a four-game losing streak and on its way to six losses in eight games.

Should Syracuse advance to the Sweet 16, it most likely will face either second-seed North Carolina or Washington, with dangerous senior Isiah Thomas. And if the Cuse is up for that challenge, it will find either Ohio State � the top seed in the 68-team tournament � or possibly a streaking Kentucky standing in its way in the Elite Eight.

In my mind, the East Region is the toughest bracket, with the Buckeyes the favorite.

But this is March, and we all know how maddening things can get this time of year.

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This will be only the third NCAA tournament appearance for Indiana State since the player nicknamed �the Hick from French Lick� put the program on the map in 1979 and changed the face of college basketball forever. The classic showdown between Bird and Earvin Magic Johnson of Michigan State drew gargantuan ratings and made the NCAAs a television phenomenon.

In the 32 years between that appearance and this year�s, the Sycamores reached the tournament in 2000 (losing in first round) and 2001 (losing in the second round).

In contrast, this will be the 28th NCAA appearance during Jim Boeheim�s 35-year career at Syracuse. He is seventh all-time in tournament wins with 44. ISU�s all-time tournament record is 5-3. This will be the first meeting between the programs.

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As expected, the Big East landed a record 11 teams in the tournament, and four of them are in the East Region � SU, No. 5 West Virginia, No. 9 Villanova and No. 11 Marquette. Of those four, Villanova seems the most vulnerable. They come into the NCAAs having lost 10 of their last 15. Not exactly what you would call peaking at the right time.  

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Poring over the Indiana State record book, I was reminded of just what a fabulous player Bird truly was. He is the school�s all-time leading scorer, rebounder and stealer. His personal scoring best was 49 points, but I counted a total of 15 games where he topped 40. And his career scoring average of 30.3 points per game is even more impressive when you consider he played during the era of the 3-point shot in college basketball. He also averaged 4.6 assists a contest. 

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