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2014 NCAA Tournament: Western Michigan vs. Syracuse Preview

Do the Broncos stand a chance against Syracuse's 2-3 zone? Or are the Orange ripe for an upset?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

After sharing the MAC regular season title and blowing away co-champion Toledo in the tournament final, Western Michigan earned a 14-seed in the south region of the 2014 NCAA Tournament and a matchup with ACC powerhouse Syracuse.

The Broncos, who earned their automatic berth with a 98-77 victory over the Rockets on Saturday in Cleveland, will take on the Orange Thursday at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo.

Though Syracuse started the season winning its first 25 games, Western Michigan comes in as the hotter team. The Orange are a mere 2-5 in the span of the last month, while the Broncos have won 12 of their last 13 contests.

Part of the reason for Syracuse's recent struggles has been its issues on the offensive end. Since losing to Boston College on February 19, the Orange have scored more than 60 points in a game just twice.

The Orange were also getting limited action from sophomore forward Jerami Grant down the stretch, who has been battling a back injury for much of the season. However, Grant seems to be healthy after playing 40 minutes and scoring 19 points in Syracuse's last game, a loss in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals.

Of course, Western Michigan has its own star big man to lean on. Senior Shayne Whittington is nearly averaging a double-double this season with 16 points and nine rebounds per game. At 6-11, he'll be the biggest guy on the court, taller even than Syracuse center Baye-Moussa Keita.

The Broncos will need a big game from Whittington if they hope to penetrate Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone. And while the two teams haven't faced each other since 1988 (a 94-71 Syracuse victory), the Broncos are somewhat familiar with the Orange's defensive scheme. Eastern Michigan coach Rob Murphy, who was a part of Jim Boeheim's staff for seven seasons, employs the 2-3 zone in Ypsilanti. Though the Broncos struggled in an early season matchup with the Eagles, scoring only 37 points on the road, they were able to solve the zone in a 75-67 victory just a few weeks ago.

The Broncos will also need to find a way to stop Syracuse's leading scorer, C.J. Fair. Fair, a senior from Baltimore, averages 16 points and 6 rebounds per game. A seasoned tournament veteran, this is his fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, after leading the Orange to Elite Eight and a Final Four appearances in the past two seasons.

Perhaps the most intriguing matchup will be between Orange freshman phenom Tyler Ennis and Western Michigan senior David Brown. Ennis, who some consider to be the top point guard prospect in this year's NBA Draft, is averaging 12.7 points and 5.6 assists per game. But it's his late-game heroics, like his half-court buzzer beater against Pitt, that have turned heads across the country.

While you may not find Brown on NBA rosters this fall, you won't find a guard with a hotter hand. The senior is leading the Broncos in scoring this season, averaging 19 points per game. He also poured in 32 points in Saturday's MAC Championship game, including five 3-pointers.

The winner of the game will face the winner of the Ohio State-Dayton matchup. Tipoff is scheduled for 2:45 p.m.