Syracuse, out early again, ready to regroup

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) - Syracuse’s promising season ended abruptly when the 12th-ranked Orange were bounced from the NCAA tournament by Big East rival Marquette.

And so the team’s mantra for the season _ “Unfinished Business” _ will always remain just that for at least one player _ forward Rick Jackson.

“I think we just had a little breakdown at the end, and guys got open and good players make open shots,” Jackson, the lone senior, said after Marquette’s comeback 66-62 victory Sunday night. “Can’t leave nobody open, and that’s what happened.”

Just as they did in beating Syracuse 76-70 in late January, the Golden Eagles (22-14) hit a pair of 3-pointers in the closing moments to pull out a victory. Jae Crowder’s 3 with 2:26 left tied the game at 59 and, after a backcourt violation by the Orange on an inbounds pass, Darius Johnson-Odom broke the tie from the top of the key with 27 seconds to go.

Afterward, the Orange sat in front of their lockers in a state of disbelief that their title hopes had been dashed for the second straight time without coming close to making the Final Four.

Last year, a knee injury to center Arinze Onuaku in a loss to Georgetown in the Big East tournament left the Orange thin in the middle. Despite a No. 1 seed, Syracuse was eliminated in the round of 16 by Butler during the Bulldogs’ stunning run to the championship game.

Against Marquette, Syracuse again was thin in the middle as freshman centers Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita combined to play only nine minutes, finishing with one rebound, no points, and three fouls. The 7-foot Melo and 6-10 Keita had teamed to play 32 minutes and had nine rebounds and six points in an eerily similar loss to the Golden Eagles at the Bradley Center in late January, but on this night, coach Jim Boeheim went with a smaller lineup, electing to play 6-8 sophomore James Southerland for 21 minutes.

“They just weren’t ready for the physical nature of this game,” said Boeheim, who has 45 NCAA tournament wins in his 35 years as coach, tied for sixth all-time in Division I with Jim Calhoun and Bob Knight. “They just weren’t ready for it, those two big guys.”

Southerland, who did not play against Marquette during the season and was the target of heavy criticism early in the year, had seven points on 3-of-8 shooting, one rebound, two fouls and two turnovers.

Still, heading into the offseason, the two big men have logged meaningful minutes in what was a solid season that saw Syracuse rise as high as No. 3 in the Top 25 and defeat six ranked teams.

DaShonte Riley, another 7-footer, has already resumed practicing after sitting the 2010-11 because of a stress fracture in his right foot that required surgery. With the arrival of 6-8 Rakeem Christmas in the fall, that will give Boeheim an unusual amount of depth in the middle of the Orange’s 2-3 zone defense, something that will be needed with the departure of Jackson. He averaged 13.1 points, 10.3 rebounds, and a team-high 35.6 minutes, and also blocked 86 shots in rotating between power forward and center.

Forward Kris Joseph, who has said he will return for his senior year, led Syracuse in scoring, averaging 14.3 points, and became a steady outside threat, shooting 45 of 123 (36.6 percent) from beyond the arc.

Guard Brandon Triche, who has started every game of his college career (70 straight), averaged 11.1 points as a sophomore and gives Syracuse a steadying presence in the backcourt despite 72 turnovers to go with his 100 assists.

Scoop Jardine averaged 12.5 points and 5.8 assists, but had 100 turnovers in his first year as the starting point guard. He is on track to graduate this year, but has one year of eligibility remaining. Challenging him for playing time will be freshman shooting guards Michael Carter-Williams and Trevor Cooney.

The Orange’s other two freshmen this season _ forward C.J. Fair and guard Dion Waiters _ displayed frequent signs of brilliance as rookies in a tough league. Fair had 16 points and nine rebounds in a mid-January loss at Pittsburgh, and when Triche slammed hard to the floor Sunday and injured his tailbone with just over 15 minutes left, Waiters replaced him and finished with a season-high 18 points.

“Dion and C.J. played very well,” Boeheim said. “Dion had a tremendous second half. He really took what was there. He made some great plays on the offensive end.”

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