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ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Syracuse backs up Jim Boeheim’s talk

Syracuse’s Jerami Grant blocks a shot by Shayne Whittington of Western Michigan. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Syracuse’s Jerami Grant blocks a shot by Shayne Whittington of Western Michigan.

BUFFALO — An NCAA day in Buffalo . . .

Jim Boeheim was right. He told us so in his weary way, his words expressing disbelief that anyone else could see it differently.

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Everyone was shocked when Syracuse lost to Boston College Feb. 19, its first loss of the season and one that dropped it out of the No. 1 spot in the rankings. Upsets happen, but that loss seemed to knock the Orange off their mark. They lost four of their next six and had the look of a high seed about to be upset in the NCAA Tournament.

“I don’t think we played any differently at the end of the year than we played all year,’’ Boeheim said Wednesday.

Then his team went out Thursday and proved him right by demolishing Western Michigan, 77-53.

No wonder he gets weary of those who see the flaws in his team.

“We played at Virginia, at Duke — nobody else won there in the league, either,’’ he said. “So that’s fairly normal.

“We played at Virginia without Jerami Grant and we played at Duke, and it came down to one play that maybe went the wrong way. But I think we’ve covered that play already this year.

“And then we didn’t have Jerami for Georgia Tech. We’re not the same team without him. You know, we lost to N.C. State in a game that we had a 2-point lead late. They banked in a shot, banked a three, and they’re a pretty good team. They won [Tuesday] night.’’

Grant is indeed a catalyst. He was a spinning, jumping force in the first half against Western Michigan as the Orange decided the issue early. Grant had two spectacular dunks, one off a spin dribble that brought the sellout Orange-clad crowd to its feet.

“Last year, we lost five out of our last six games and went into the tournament [and went to the Final Four],’’ Boeheim said. “The tournament’s a different thing. You can start playing well in one game, and all of a sudden, you can get on a roll.’’

So there, all you Syracuse and Boeheim doubters. Maybe I was one. I promise to change.

.   .   .

Officially, no one from the University of Dayton was going to acknowledge that beating Ohio State is extra special after a 60-59 victory on a layup by Vee Sanford with four seconds left.

But it looked and sounded extra special. The Dayton crowd was on its feet a lot, encouraging its team and yapping at the officials. The band was louder then Ohio State’s, seemingly rising to the challenge. And the Dayton bench was more reactive than Ohio State’s, highly charged at every call, and piled atop one another after the buzzer sounded.

The emotion is rooted in the Ohio State policy of not playing other Ohio schools such as Dayton, Xavier, and Cincinnati.

It seemed obvious, but Dayton coach Archie Miller, a former assistant to Thad Matta at Ohio State, wasn’t saying it.

“A lot of people are going to make a big case about it being Thad Matta or it being Ohio State, but you advance in the NCAA Tournament, that’s hard — that’s really hard,’’ he said. “It wasn’t about Ohio State or where they’re from or blah, blah, blah. It wasn’t. It was about us.’’

Matta even coached Xavier before Ohio State, yet he doesn’t sound as if he’s going to change his mind about scheduling.

“I think that people don’t understand, in terms of what goes on in a college basketball season, in terms of the offseason, all the things that you’re trying to do, just the length of it,’’ he said.

“Our schedule, in terms of what I would like to do with it, and the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, those types of things, it’s just, in our minds, not as conducive.”

So it’s going to have to be the NCAA Selection Committee that makes it happen again in the future.

.   .   .

It’s a new era of tournament basketball under UConn coach Kevin Ollie. The new coach would agree with the old coach on the Huskies’ 89-81 overtime victory over Saint Joseph’s. Jim Calhoun often said he didn’t “rate’’ NCAA victories. Winning was just good enough, advancing was good enough, poor play can be forgiven in a victory.

The Huskies fought an uphill battle, trailing by 10 in the first half, but they slowly climbed back behind Boston’s own Shabazz Napier, who confirmed his reputation as great player and tough customer. The Hawks did a decent job defending him, but as the second half wore on Napier found his way to the basket with his quick dribble. He either scored or passed for an assist.

Without him, St. Joe’s wins.

In overtime, he hit all seven of his free throws and finished with 21 points as the Hawks kept fouling and the Huskies kept making free throws.

Maybe the Huskies will put together a better game in the next round. Maybe they won’t, but as Calhoun will attest, winning is the only thing that counts.

.   .   .

As the fourth game of the day unfolds, if the matchup isn’t a good one, the enthusiasm seeps out of the arena like a slow leak in a tire. It was quiet for the Villanova-Milwaukee game at tip-off. The Villanova fans were invisible. Eventually both pep bands yielded to recorded music over the PA. Milwaukee fans were vocal until the Panthers fell out of it.

In the less-than-ideal conditions, Villanova played not like a team that could have been a No. 1 seed but like a team that wanted to be upset. Heck, the Wildcats missed their first 16 3-point attempts. They were careless on offense. They were not upset, however. They played enough defense and found enough offense to prevail, 73-53.

Everyone was glad to head home or back to the hotel and get ready for the next round.

Joe Sullivan can be reached at jtsullivan@globe.com.
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