Top-seeded Syracuse's deep bench an NCAA savior

JOHN KEKIS AP Sports Writer Published:

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) -- Don't bother trying to tell Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan anything about Syracuse.

He already knows all there is to know.

"They've got so many talented players," Ryan said simply on Monday, as he contemplated facing the top-seeded Orange in the East semifinals of the NCAA tournament.

"They're just good. They have a lot of different weapons and they do have depth."

And last week, they utilized it.

Boosted by their bench, the Orange (33-2) cruised past eighth-seeded Kansas State 75-59 in the third round, on Saturday, and extracted a difficult 72-65 win over North Carolina-Asheville in the second round two days before.

On Thursday night in Boston, Syracuse will meet the Badgers, seeded fourth, who improved to 26-9 and advanced to the round of 16 for consecutive years by defeating fifth-seeded Vanderbilt, 60-57, on Saturday. They also defeated Montana, 73-49, in the second round.

This, though, may be Wisconsin's toughest test.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has said since the fall that his team's success would depend on its leaders -- fifth-year guard Scoop Jardine and senior forward Kris Joseph -- and how they perform when it counts. The supporting cast, though, has made that job a lot easier since the season opener.

And nothing has changed in the postseason.

Even without starting center Fab Melo, who won't play because of an eligibility issue, and the struggles of sophomore forward C.J. Fair -- 3 points and 3 rebounds in each NCAA game -- the Orange are in the round of 16 for the third time in four years.

Syracuse has six players averaging at least 22.5 minutes and 10 averaging at least 10.3. In its two tournament games, the Orange bench, led by 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Dion Waiters and 6-8 junior forward James Southerland, has outscored opposing reserves, 61-16.

"It's key," Boeheim said. "For a long time, it was Dion and C.J. Now James is coming in there and doing that."

Southerland was 5 of 6 from the field in the second half against Kansas State, while Waiters and Jardine were both 5 of 9. For Waiters, the Big East Sixth Man of the Year, his 30 points in the two games are a continuation of a standout season in which he's averaged 12.7 with a team-high 65 steals.

For Southerland, who also has 30 points in the tournament on 11 of 14 shooting -- including 5 of 7 from beyond the arc -- it's the breakthrough the Orange faithful have been anticipating since he first stepped on the court as a freshman in an exhibition game and scored 19 points, hitting every shot he attempted.

"Dion has been very good all year, very steady," Boeheim said. "You know, we've said all year, we think we've got seven guys that can start. Certainly, the way James is playing now, and Dion is playing, they're arguably as good as most starters on most teams."

Southerland displayed fits and spurts of stellar play during the season -- a career-high 19 points against Albany and 15 points at Notre Dame in the Orange's lone loss of the regular season -- then found himself sitting too much as the postseason loomed. He scored only 37 points in the final 10 games of the regular season, going 3 of 30 from beyond the arc.

Now, Southerland's jaw-dropping talent -- he also had three blocks against Kansas State -- is visible outside of practices in the cozy confines of the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center on campus, where he regularly wows his teammates with his long-range accuracy and leaping ability.

"I was always the go-to guy in high school, so I've always felt comfortable shooting it," said Southerland, who starred at Cardozo High in Bayside, N.Y. "My guys have confidence in me.

"And they know when I'm open, we're going to hit it down."