SAN JOSE, Calif. – All that extra NCAA tournament experience that Rakeem Christmas, James Southerland and Baye Moussa Keita got a year ago when Fab Melo was suspended for Syracuse could pay dividends this year for the Orange.
With that tournament tested trio joining NCAA veterans such as Brandon Triche and C.J. Fair, the fourth-seeded Orange (26-9) head into Thursday’s second-round game in San Jose against No. 13 seed Montana (25-6) with plenty of postseason experience.
Melo was ruled ineligible last year just before the start of the tournament, forcing coach Jim Boeheim’s top-seeded squad to scramble to replace the star center. Christmas, Southerland and Keita all saw their roles grow in Melo’s absence and made key contributions in Syracuse’s tournament run that ended with a regional final loss to Ohio State.
“I feel like it will definitely help me a lot,” Southerland said. “I feel like everyone that played in the tournament last year is going to have a great experience. Like Rakeem, he did a great job last year in the tournament. A lot of guys step up during this time. And I feel like we can take last year’s experience getting all the way to the elite eight and bring it to this game with Montana.”
While Syracuse did not lose a player before the start of this tournament, there was a bit of a cloud after media reports came out Wednesday that the school has been under investigation for at least a year for possible NCAA violations.
“Last year was completely different,” coach Jim Boeheim said. “We didn’t have Fab Melo, that’s a little different. That was not a distraction, it was an absence. And they handled it as well as they could.”
Southerland got his most extensive playing time of the season in the first two games, scoring 15 points each against North Carolina-Asheville and Kansas State.
Christmas averaged just 3 minutes per game in the nine contests before Melo’s suspension but played more than 21 minutes per game in the tournament, averaging 5.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per contest.
Keita, who played more than 10 minutes just once in the final month of the regular season, averaged about 18 minutes per game in the tournament when he grabbed 15 rebounds and blocked five shots in the two regional games against Wisconsin and Ohio State.
“It helped a lot that we helped in the NCAA tournament last year,” Christmas said. “We know what it means and we know we have to come and play hard. We just have to play our game and be prepared. Right now everybody is playing well and anything that happened before is forgotten.”
Triche has played nine NCAA tournament games in his first three seasons at Syracuse, while Fair has played six games over the past two years giving Boeheim more than enough experience to make up for tournament newcomer and star point guard Michael Carter-Williams.
Carter-Williams got a taste of postseason basketball in last week’s Big East tournament when he struggled with his shot in the four games, hitting just 35 percent from the field. But he had 36 assists in the four games, showing his playmaking ability.
Despite blowing a 16-point, second-half lead in a 78-61 loss to Louisville in the final, the Orange gained some confidence in New York by beating Seton Hall, Pittsburgh and Georgetown after losing four of five to end the regular season.
“We used the Big East to our benefit, and that’s to play well and get our offense going,” Triche said. “Our offense was pretty much terrible for the whole month of February. But we got it going at the right time. That’s all we needed to do, just go in the Big East, knock off a few games and get back playing well.”
Montana comes into this matchup with plenty of tournament experience, making it for the third time in four years. The Grizzlies have won just one tournament game since 1975, and lost 73-49 to Wisconsin a year ago.
“The bulk of this team was in this situation a year ago,” coach Wayne Tinkle said. “And they’re not real happy with their performance. And that’s really been the fire behind all their efforts since last March. And now they’re glad to be here, and I’m very confident they’re going to take advantage of this time around.”
Guard Will Cherry shot just 3 for 14 in that loss and is hoping for a better result in his final tournament run. He is joined on the wing by Kareem Jamar, who is averaging 14.5 points per game and has the outside shot to take advantage of Syracuse’s trademark zone defense.
“We were in this position last year,” Cherry said. “We can kind of draw back on last year and see some of the mistakes we had in that game, even though it was a different opponent. Just the way we approached the game mentally and physically has to be different from last year. We have to go in there and wear our heart on our sleeves like we’ve been doing every year, with the adversity we had to overcome to get here.”
The Grizzlies did lose leading scorer Mathias Ward to a season-ending foot injury late in the year but they have won 21 of 23 heading into the tournament.
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