BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP)—Syracuse might have taken Vermont lightly five years ago. Rest assured that won’t happen again.
“I know that it’s going to be a real big game for Coach, and I think all of us, coming off a two-game losing streak,” said Syracuse forward Wes Johnson, the Big East player of the year. “It’s for us to bounce back.”
Syracuse was fresh from winning the Big East tournament when it faced Vermont in the first round of the 2005 NCAA tournament. But former stars Gerry McNamara and Hakim Warrick were unable to come to the rescue in the slow-paced game and Syracuse suffered a stunning overtime loss to the 13th-seeded Catamounts.
The teams meet again Friday night, and there would seem to be even more at stake this time for the Orange (28-4)—the Big East regular-season champs are the top seed in the West Regional, and no 16th seed has ever beaten a No. 1.
“I certainly recall watching that game,” said fifth-year senior Andy Rautins, who was about to sign with Syracuse at the time. “I think all of Syracuse was destroyed by that game. So this definitely serves as a little bit of motivation for us, try to redeem ourselves a little bit, not have any letdowns. We’re not taking anybody lightly at this point.”
Vermont (25-9) will be making its first trip to the tournament since that signature victory, which certainly has served the school well.
“No one really could forget that game,” said senior forward Marqus Blakely, who leads the Catamounts with 17.4 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. “When you get recruited by Vermont, that’s the first thing that sticks in your mind. No one really thought that they were going to be able to stay in it, so anything can happen on a given night.”
Vermont, champions of the America East Conference, has won 11 of its last 12, and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim remains wary.
“Vermont, we know, is a very good team,” Boeheim said. “We know they played very well this year, particularly over the last part of the year.”
The Catamounts’ win over the Orange, their only one in four visits to the NCAA tournament, ranks as one of the most embarrassing losses in Syracuse history, vying with the team that dropped a 73-69 decision to Richmond in the first round in 1991 to become the first second seed in tournament history to lose to a No. 15 seed.
There might be an omen here, too. That 1990-91 Syracuse team also was the regular-season conference champion and lost its first game in the Big East tournament.
“I’ve never really thought about what we’re supposed to do or what people think in the few games that I’ve coached,” said Boeheim, who has 827 career victories and is tied for eighth in tournament wins with 42 in his 34 years at Syracuse. “We prepare to play.”
This time, the Orange will prepare without center Arinze Onuaku. The fifth-year senior crashed to the floor with an injured quadriceps in his right knee in the waning minutes against Georgetown in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament. An MRI a week ago revealed the injury.
Onuaku said he is without pain and that the swelling has gone down, and he was courtside late Thursday afternoon during the team’s shootaround at HSBC Arena, laughing and joking with assistant coach Rob Murphy after signing some autographs.
Although Onuaku will be watching, he figures to have an impact nonetheless.
“His presence is going to carry us,” Johnson said. “Him being on the sideline and being the leader is going to help us. If we keep winning, he’ll eventually get back.”
The game has the added attraction of Syracuse standout Kris Joseph going against his brother Maurice, Vermont’s second-leading scorer. The Orange will go with a small lineup that’s been very successful, and Joseph, who’s been the first man off the bench all season, will start.
“We’ve been talking ever since the selection show,” said Maurice, a transfer from Michigan State who’s averaging 14 points. “It makes the story a little more interesting, but the biggest story here is there’s a game to be played. When the ball goes up, we’re going to try to make history.”