Sean Farrell of SB Nation's Nunes Magician highlighted a somewhat startling fact in his preview of Syracuse's tournament run: they're a program still looking for their first tournament win. Like, first ever.
The Syracuse Orange has a chance to make history on Saturday when the team plays the Chattanooga Mocs in the Round of 64. They face off at 1:30 on ESPN2. Although all of the tournament teams have the pressure of keeping their season alive, this game has special importance for Syracuse. The Orange, the No. 6 seed, will be looking to pick up its first NCAA win in team history.
"It means a lot," Coffey said. "With me being a senior and ending my college career, hopefully we can end it in history."
With this being the first time Syracuse has even made consecutive tournament appearances, Keeley describes how everything from "...the team’s preparation, mentality and demeanor" will be different this time around.
All of that makes this next question seem both reasonable and a bit premature: is it possible that Syracuse could get its first consecutive wins in a tournament this season?
Darkhorse: #6 Syracuse
I'll be the first to admit that it's probably pointless to even think too hard about any sixth seed or lower making it to the Sweet 16: you have to choose between a) an upset of #1 Notre Dame, b) someone beating #3 Kentucky in Lexington or c) someone beating #2 Baylor in Waco.
Of those, I just chose Syracuse rather than just taking the easy way out.
Making that choice a bit easier is that Sagarin only gives Kentucky a +6 advantage even after taking the home court advantage into account. And Florida might have already laid out the blueprint for beating Kentucky during conference play: in the Gators' two wins against Kentucky this season (arguably the main reason they even got into the tournament), the Wildcats went 11-for-44 from the three point line. Suffice it to say, they don't want to be shooting that many threes - they average 16 per game on the season.
With Florida pushing UK a bit out of their comfort zone while also getting to the line 53 times in two games offensively and slowing the pace a bit, they were able to beat Kentucky. Syracuse already plays a moderate pace, relies almost entirely on zone defense, and shoots a respectable 72.8% from the free throw line. If they can withstand Kentucky's pressure, they have the best shot of any seed sixth or lower of getting to the Sweet 16 (which makes sense - their sixth).
Upset watch: #10 Fordham vs. #7 California
Sagarin has Cal as only a +3 for this game on a neutral court, but you might not need that to figure out how Fordham could conceivably pull off what might be more of an upset by conference affiliation moreso than seed.
Cal ranked 248th in the nation in shooting efficiency this season and with Talia Caldwell's graduation and Gennifer Brandon's absence from the team late in non-conference play, they just haven't established the sort of dominant offensive rebounding advantage that carried them last season.
In the 12 games that they've shot over 42% from the field this season, they've won. In the 18 other games, they've gone 9-9 and haven't beaten a tournament team. Compounding that problem is that they only shoot 27.8% from the three point line and 66.1% from the free throw line, meaning that if they do find themselves in a hole it can be really tough for them to dig out of it.
For Fordham, a win against Cal would be arguably their best of the season (considering they're far more familiar with Dayton, who they beat earlier this season) but in stark contrast they are an efficient shooting team: Fordham hit 36% of their long-range attempts this season and has four regulars shooting over 35% this season, including stars Erin Rooney (37.8%) and Abigail Corning (38.5%).
Fordham would still have to find some way to deal with Cal's athleticism in the post to pull off the upset, but an extended cold spell from Cal plus hot three point shooting from Fordham justifies the narrow Sagarin margin.
Sleeper: #7 Cal
Nevertheless, if you're looking for a team in this bracket to make noise, we can't exactly count Cal out either. Forward Reshanda Gray has been on an absolute tear lately, averaging 26.8 points on 74.5% shooting and 12.3 rebounds over the last four games. As long as she stays out of foul trouble, she's capable of being the force the pushes this team past a dangerous Baylor team.
And if there's any coaching staff that will figure out how to get Baylor in Waco, it's Cal's - there's plenty of film out there of teams containing Odyssey Sims to come close to beating Baylor in Waco and there's no question that this group will figure out a game plan that works for their squad should they advance.
Player to watch: Brittany Boyd, PG, California
If Cal does beat Baylor, it's highly likely that Brittany Boyd will be at the center of that effort.
As much as people discuss what Sims means to the Lady Bears, Boyd does about as much for the Golden Bears: in her 29 games this season, Boyd has been responsible for 23.68% of Cal's overall production; Sims has been responsible for 25.65% of Baylor's. They do that very differently of course - you can't ignore that Sims is facing triple teams as the primary scoring option for Baylor whereas Boyd has picked up assists far more often - and Gray is actually the statistical leader for Cal (28.49%) but the point stands for both teams: if one of those players is off, they're usually going to struggle.
When Boyd has at her best, there are few more purely entertaining players in the nation as she's nearly impossible to stay in front of with her combination of speed and strength. If she can really get going and Gray continues her rampage, they could sail past Fordham and could give Baylor a run in Waco.
What separates Baylor is that they're actually a bit more balanced than Cal, despite all the attention on Sims-as-one-woman-show. To Baylor's credit, coach Kim Mulkey's strategy of scheduling light early on to get her young team acclimated might have worked as underclassmen Nina Davis and Niya Johnson have emerged as key contributors along with Sune Agbuke inside.
Marquee matchup: #2 Baylor vs. #1 Notre Dame
Baylor is hardly a shoe-in to get to the Elite Eight: Kentucky could really challenge them in the Sweet 16 with their brand of aggressive defense (although Sims could just make them pay for their aggression) and Cal or Syracuse could give them trouble with their defensive schemes.
But they have to be the favorite to get there and a meeting with Notre Dame could be among the most entertaining of the tournament. And it's hard to find two teams more different in terms of how they function as a unit: whereas Baylor is heavily dependent on Sims, Notre Dame's strength is their total lack of reliance on any one player.
Yet if Sims has an efficient game for Baylor and they're able to establish an advantage on the boards with their perimeter players helping their posts, they could put themselves in position to win.
Favorite: #1 Notre Dame
All that said, there's not exactly a question about Notre Dame being the favorite here.
We had a fanpost earlier this season describing Notre Dame as the most entertaining team in the nation to watch and it's because of the way they play as a unit. They can win in so many different ways with three players capable of carrying the load statistically - even if one of their stars has an off game, they're all well-rounded enough to find other ways to contribute to the team effort in ways that don't show up statistically.
Not to dismiss what UConn has done this season, but Notre Dame is a team built to make a deep tournament run, perhaps even moreso this season without Skylar Diggins than last season with her. It might not be difficult to imagine how to take things away from them to beat them, but actually going out on the court and doing it for 40 minutes is something that nobody has solved this season.