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Syracuse wants to strike gold during California stay

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Through 22 rough-and-tumble Big East Conference men’s basketball games, Syracuse University displayed a wide variety of performances.

There was the Orange’s good side, winning the first six, including a road victory over then-No. 1 Louisville. The rotten side was also on display, losing seven of the past 12 regular-season games to stumble into the postseason. And even an unexpected side, knocking off long-time nemesis Pittsburgh and Georgetown en route to the conference title game, where SU held a 15-point, second-half lead on Louisville before finally running out of gas.

With an inconsistent conference season in the rear-view mirror, SU can now fully concentrate on what it hopes will be a continuation of the good play in New York City with a long NCAA Tournament run.

The Orange, which earned the No. 4 seed in the East Region, are favored by 13 points to beat No. 13 Montana in a second-round game tonight in San Jose, Calif. But for a reminder that such games don’t always go as planned, the players need only look back to a year ago when then No. 1 SU struggled to beat No. 16 UNC Asheville, 72-65, in Pittsburgh.

“The next three weeks is how people judge your season,’’ SU coach Jim Boeheim said. “Everything else, your nonconference schedule and league schedule, is just preliminaries. We feel as if we’re coming into the NCAA in as positive a mind as we’ve been in awhile after what we did at the Big East Tournament. But you never know if that will carry over. I’ve seen it go both ways.’’

For the players, the chance to compete against new opponents after slugging it out with Big East foes for 2 1/2 months is a relief.

“The Big East teams know us so well, it’s tough to execute against them,’’ SU senior forward James Southerland said. “Now we get to play somebody we haven’t seen, who hasn’t seen us, so it’s like starting the season all over.’’

Against Asheville, the sluggish Orange fell behind by four points at halftime and overcame a poor shooting effort (5-for-23 on 3-pointers) to advance, barely avoiding a top seed’s initial loss to a No. 16.

“We’ve learned that you can’t take anything for granted,’’ said Southerland, who scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half of last year’s second-round game. “Every game is going to be a battle because all of these teams are really good. You just have to focus on what you do best.’’

SU went on to beat Kansas State in the third round, and Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 before seeing its season end with a regional final loss to Ohio State in Boston.

“Last year as the No. 1 seed I think we felt the pressure a little bit more,’’ SU senior Brandon Triche said. “But we always want to win, no matter where we are seeded. Being a fourth seed there might be a little less pressure because a lot of people don’t expect us to do anything. We might even be underdogs at this point.’’

The Montana players don’t want to hear about that scenario.

“We know all about them because we see them on TV all the time,’’ said junior guard Kareem Jamar, the Grizzlies’ leading scorer and rebounder. “They are in the tournament every year and usually do well. It’s going to take a tremendous performance for us to win. But we truly believe we can compete with them.’’

Montana coach Wayne Tinkle, in his seventh season, said his scouting report on the Orange is simple. “They are long, athletic, physical and deep. But we’ve been smaller than a lot of our opponents this season, and we’re used to being not as talented or as quick. Our strength is playing as a team and making good decisions through good execution.’’

Triche said it all starts with Montana’s guards. “We have to stay in front of them because they have four guys who can really shoot.’’

The Grizzlies shoot nearly 39 percent on 3-pointers, with three players hitting more than 40 percent. Tinkle said if his team is going to have a chance at the upset, “we must knock down some of those shots against their zone because we’re probably not going to get a lot going to the basket. But, we can’t settle for bad shots because that kick-starts their transition game.’’

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