|Arizona State, Syracuse look to prove doubters wrong|
To hear the NCAA Tournament selection committee tell it, Arizona State and Syracuse made the 68-team field before the calendar turned.
The fact that they will meet in a Midwest Regional play-in game in Dayton, Ohio, on Wednesday indicates how much slippage occurred in conference play.
Arizona State (20-11) beat tournament No. 1 seeds Xavier and Kansas in November and December and rose to No. 3 in the AP Top 25 as the last undefeated team in Division I before scuffling in the Pac-12. The Sun Devils had an 8-10 conference record and lost to Colorado in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.
Syracuse's non-conference resume, while not as impressive at the top, included victories over NCAA Tournament teams Iona, Texas Southern and Buffalo and losses to Kansas and St. Bonaventure.
The Orange (20-13) were 8-10 in the saturated ACC and beat only one ranked team all year, Clemson, in the last home game of the season. The body of work was enough to give them the 36th and final at-large berth over Notre Dame, according to the committee.
"The message sent is that we look at games in November and December as much as February and March if they are against the same caliber of teams," tournament selection committee chair and Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen told NCAA.com.
"It's definitely a factor of who you play. How did you do against the teams considered to be in the tournament?"
Arizona State made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014, although guard Shannon Evans II was there with coach Bobby Hurley and Buffalo in 2015. The Sun Devils lost five of their last six games but were 5-2 against NCAA Tournament teams, including victories over San Diego State, Kansas State and UCLA.
When the Arizona State logo popped up on the tournament selection show, players celebrated by jumping into the swimming pool at Hurley's house.
"Believe me, it was an excruciating three days. We knew it was going to be a very close decision," said Hurley, in his third season.
"Even though it was not looking promising an hour before, we still held out hope that our quality wins on the road and at neutral sites would pay off. That's part of a program philosophy of scheduling hard in the non-conference. We're in a power conference. We don't have to go to Kansas. But we did. It paid off."
Senior guards Tra Holder (18.4 points), Evans II (16.6) and Kodi Justice (12.6) led the Sun Devils in scoring. Evans led the conference with 91 3-pointers, Justice had 74 and Holder 66. Arizona State led the Pac-12 with an 83.5 scoring average and a plus-four turnover margin.
Syracuse, which has made the tournament 33 times in coach Jim Boeheim's 42 seasons, seemed equally as ecstatic.
"The locker room was the most excited I've ever seen our players in all the years we've been in there," Boeheim said.
"Our strength of schedule, something the committee has always talked about, we've been criticized for in the past. But of all the bubble teams, we had just about the strongest non-conference strength of schedule. Buffalo really obviously helped us there. They are really a good team. When you beat a team that is in the top 30 of the RPI ... if the name was different, everybody would be excited."
Buffalo (25-8) has a .596 RPI ranking as calculated ESPN, ranked No. 20 and ahead of Miami, Gonzaga and West Virginia among others.
Junior point guard Frank Howard is the only Orange player with tournament experience. A reserve on the 2016 Final Four team, the 6-foot-5 Howard is averaging 15.0 points and 5.0 assists per game.
Howard, 6-6 sophomore guard Tyus Battle (19.8 points) and 6-8 freshman forward Oshae Brissett (14.7 points, 8.8 rebounds) are the top three scorers, and it is hard to get them off the floor. Battle leads Division I players with an average of 38.5 minutes per game and Howard is second at 38.3. Brissett is sixth at 38.0.
Battle is the fifth player in Syracuse history to reach 1,000 points in his first two seasons, joining Lawrence Moten, Johnny Flynn, 2003 NCAA Tournament winner Gerry McNamara and Billy Owens. Battle broke Owens' record for average minutes played. Owens averaged 38.0 in 1992.
Behind freshman Malachi Richardson and senior Michael Gbinije, the Orange made the Final Four as a 10th seed in 2016 in its most recent tournament appearance before losing to North Carolina.
"Arizona State is a very good team," Boeheim said. "We're happy to be playing."