The NCAA Tournament's field has officially been trimmed to the Sweet 16, and local hoops program, the Syracuse basketball team, is still alive and needs a few more victories to make the Final Four in New Orleans, La., March 31-April 2.
For the next few days, SB Nation New York will be breaking down the Orange's next March Madness contest against the Wisconsin Badgers on Thursday in Boston (7:15 p.m. on CBS). For more on Syracuse vs. Wisconsin, check back to this StoryStream.
Meanwhile, here's Part III of our preview: Frontcourt Preview
Syracuse Orange (33-2)
The most common word to describe the Syracuse Orange this season has been "deep." The Orange all season have featured 10 players that could probably start on any of the remaining 16 teams left in the NCAA Tournament not named Kentucky or North Carolina.
The backcourt is composed of four players who have earned some sort of pre- or post-season honor or will in the near future, while the frontcourt, at one point in the season, showcased two former High School McDonald's All-Americans (sophomore center Fab Melo and freshman forward Rakeem Christmas), one of them the Big East Conference Defensive Player of the Year (Melo), a former Big East Sixth-Man of the Year award winner (senior forward Kris Joseph) and solid role players (sophomore C.J. Fair and sophomore center Baye Keita).
Though Joseph (team-leading 13.7 points per game) and Fair (8.3 ppg and 5.4 rebounds per game) have been consistent contributors to the Orange's season-long success (and don't look for that to change Thursday), the play of Christmas (6-foot-9, 222 pounds) and Kieta (6-10, 220) has been shaky.
And that was the biggest question for top-seeded Syracuse heading into March Madness -- how will the back-line of Syracuse's 2-3 zone hold up without Melo in the middle?
Well, just like the three games during the regular season when the 'Cuse were without their 7-footer, the results have been mixed, but there have been flashes of some really good production.
Case in point, Christmas' six-point, seven-rebound, two-block performance against the UNC-Asheville Bulldogs in the Orange's slim second-round victory last Thursday was lost in the shuffle because of Syracuse's bad overall performance against an inferior opponent.
However, Christmas' third-round performance (eight points, 11 rebounds and three blocks) against a seemingly "tougher" Kansas St. Wildcats was noticed by every Orange fan, and got everyone thinking maybe we will be all right without Melo after all.
The fact is, Christmas has the raw talent to be an outstanding bigman. However, his development was slowed this season because of the rapid offseason development of Melo.
Meanwhile, Keita suffered from the same issue. Last season, the recruit from Senegal was a solid bench option behind Melo, as he averaged 14 minutes, two points, almost four rebounds and a block per game. This year, his numbers have been trimmed to 11 mpg, 2 rpg and 0.9 bpg.
In conclusion, Joseph and Fair are going to do what they do best and it's going to be very hard to stop them. The key to breaking down Syracuse's frontcourt is to get the very raw Christmas to make bonehead mistakes to shake his confidence and possibly get him in foul trouble, and hope that Kieta continues to be shaky like he has all season.
-- By Jared E. Smith (@JaredSmithCNY)
Wisconsin Badgers (26-9)
While guard Jordan Taylor and the younger Josh Gasser are undoubtedly prone to inconsistency, Wisconsin's frontcourt has seen a wide range of performances this season. Ryan Evans, a 6-foot-6, 210-pound junior, has emerged as the Badgers' bona fide No. 2 option behind Taylor. After averaging just 2.8 points per 11.6 minutes of playing time last season, Evans has improved immensely in 2011-12 to average 11.1 points and 6.8 rebounds in 30.5 minutes of playing time per game. He's scored in double figures in each of Wisconsin's last 14 games, thanks in large to part to his versatility. Evans' jumper is sound enough to extend his range close to the 3-point arc, and he can also drive to the hoop and finish with authority.
Elsewhere in the lineup, 6-foot-10, 235-pound Jared Berggren mans the center position. Berggren, a junior, has had his fair share of up-and-down performances, though at his best he's a typical Wisconsin big man -- quick and agile enough to maneuver around the perimeter, as well as coordinated enough to extend his shooting range to 3-point territory. Berggren averaged just 6.9 minutes of playing last year, but now he gets 27.9 and scores 10.3 points, grabs 5.0 rebounds and blocks 1.7 shots per game. Much of his inconsistency comes on the defensive end, as his lanky frame occasionally puts him at a size mismatch with his opponent. This season, Berggren struggled defensively against Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Michigan State's Draymond Green, Derrick Nix and Adriean Payne.
Most inconsistent among Wisconsin's frontcourt trio, though, has been Mike Bruesewitz. The 6-foot-6, 222-pound junior who traded in one of the nation's most beloved haircuts (something along the lines of a tousled red-orange afro) for a more benign buzz cut is the Badgers' undeniable energy and hustle guy. His games have always been better graded by the number of floor burns he collects as opposed to his points, though Bruesewitz is just recently breaking out of a shooting slump that severely hindered Wisconsin down the stretch. After sinking a 3-pointer at Minnesota Feb. 9, Bruesewitz didn't hit another until the Montana game March 15.
During that stretch, at least, Bruesewitz continued to rebound and make his normal impact on the game aside from offense. Against Montana, he finally seemed to regain his confidence, scoring eight points on 3-for-5 shooting (2-for-3 from 3-point range) and grabbing four rebounds. Against Vanderbilt, Bruesewitz scored 10 points and added three rebounds.
For more on the 2012 NCAA Tournament bracket, stay with SB Nation's Selection Sunday StoryStream, and stick around SB Nation's NCAA Tournament hub for a complete printable NCAA Tournament bracket and tons of analysis on who was snubbed, who got the best bracket, and who will make it all the way to New Orleans and the Final Four.