SAN JOSE, Calif. – The Montana Grizzlies will face long odds and even longer arms when they challenge No. 19 Syracuse in a second-round game of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament Thursday night at HP Pavilion.
The game is scheduled to tip off at 7:57 p.m. MDT on truTV, although the start time could change depending on the length of the Cal-UNLV game that precedes the Griz.
The two-time Big Sky Conference champion Griz (25-6) are a No. 13 seed; Syracuse (26-9), of the Big East, is seeded fourth.
“We have to go in there with the mindset that it’s us against the world,” Montana senior point guard Will Cherry said. “We know people don’t give us a chance of beating a No. 4 seed. … We have to go in there and wear our hearts on our sleeves like we’ve been doing all year, with the adversity we had to overcome to get here.
“Getting into the game, it’s just playing our basketball and upping the level of intensity.”
Syracuse presents the Grizzlies’ tallest challenge of the season – literally and figuratively. The Orange’s shortest player in the starting lineup is 6-foot-4 shooting guard Brandon Triche. Point guard Michael Carter-Williams is 6-6, while forwards James Southerland and C.J. Fair go 6-8, and Rakeem Christmas checks in at 6-9.
That kind of length in Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim’s patented 2-3 zone defense will be tough to overcome.
“We do have to attack it,” Montana coach Wayne Tinkle said of Syracuse’s zone. “We can’t just settle for perimeter jump shots, especially early in the game. We’ve got to do what we’ve done all year and that’s penetrate.
“Our drop-off game and our draw-and-kick game are very important to us. And we do have a few ideas of how to try to do it.”
That starts with Cherry and Big Sky MVP Kareem Jamar, who led the Griz to the league championship last week. They’ll be asked to penetrate the zone and either finish at the rim, drop the ball off to center Eric Hutchison or forward Spencer Coleman, or kick it out to shooters like Jordan Gregory or Mike Weisner.
“I just think they’re a really good, well-balanced basketball team,” Boeheim said. “I think they move the ball really well offensively. They shoot it from the perimeter extremely well.”
Four of the Orange’s starters average 12.0 points or more, led by Fair at 14.4. Southerland adds 13.9 and made a Big East tournament record 19 3-pointers last week. Triche, who has started 140 consecutive games, chips in 13.8 ppg and Carter-Williams adds 12.0.
They all concern Tinkle.
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“Obviously, the big three are Fair, Triche and Southerland, who made like 20 threes in the Big East tournament,” Tinkle said. “They’re so long and so athletic and they have so much talent, it’s great. You try to limit those guys and they have any number of others who can jump up and get you.”
Syracuse is a good rebounding team, especially on the offensive end where it holds a substantial edge over its opponents.
“That’s key,” Tinkle said. “Rebounding and transition baskets are going to be huge. We can’t let them get out in the transition game. We know that a bad shot on our part is their outlet pass; they get it and go. Between that and really limiting what they get off the offensive glass, those are going to be two telling stats.”
The Orange, though, have been turnover-prone. The rap on Carter-Williams is that he sometimes succumbs to pressure defense.
“I know the position we play, point guard, is probably one of the hardest positions on the floor,” said Cherry, the two-time Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year. “And being the orchestrator and being the general on the floor, if I can pressure them defensively and kind of get them out of the flow. I know it starts making it tough on the other players he’s trying to get the ball to.
“Michael Carter-Williams is a tremendous point guard, and even though he’s struggled at times you have to respect him.”
The Griz might have a little history on their side. Three times in the past eight years Syracuse has fallen to a double-digit seeded team: Vermont (13) in 2005, Texas A&M (12) in 2006, and Marquette (11) in 2011. Go back even further and the Orange lost to 15th-seeded Richmond in 1991. But Southerland says those early exits are not motivation for this year’s team.
“I feel like the best motivation we have is playing in the Big East tournament,” said Southerland, whose team put together a run to the Big East title game after losing four of its final five regular-season games. “We did a great job of finding our chemistry and beating some great teams. I feel like that’s the only motivation we need going into this tournament.”
Cater-Williams said the Griz won’t be lacking in that area.
“They are going to come in with nothing to lose and everything to prove,” he said. “So we need to prove why we are the better team.”
NOTES: Montana has won 93 games over the last four seasons, a school record. … The Griz have won 21 of their last 23. … The Griz are ranked fifth nationally in free-throw percentage at 76.8 and 19th in 3-point shooting at 38.5 percent. … Tinkle is fourth in career wins at Montana, just one behind Blaine Taylor and 13 behind Mike Montgomery. … Cherry, with 1,482 points, needs 19 points to pass his coach for sixth place on the school’s career scoring list. … Jamar has 1,103 career points, which ranks him 18th. He needs nine points to catch Chris Spoja (1994-97) and 22 points to pass No. 16 Anthony Johnson (2009-10).