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Syracuse finds its groove to crush upstart Middle Tennessee

ST. LOUIS -- Syracuse entered Selection Sunday nervously awaiting its fate. While Orange players said last week that they felt confident they'd be in the NCAA tournament field, their expectations peaked at a trip to Dayton for the First Four.

Instead, Syracuse earned a surprising No. 10 seed. Even more stunning: this team is headed to the Sweet 16, after rediscovering the best version of itself in St. Louis.

In manhandling Middle Tennessee 75-50 on Sunday -- similar to the way they destroyed Dayton on Friday -- the Orange looked much more like the team that won at Duke and beat Notre Dame by 15 in January, not the one that lost five of its final six regular-season games.

It all started, as it often does with coach Jim Boeheim's teams, on defense. Middle Tennessee hit everything in sight while taking down Michigan State in the tournament's biggest upset. The Blue Raiders had no such luck against Syracuse's zone and length, shooting just 29.7 percent from the field going 8-for-24 on 3-pointers. The Orange also had 11 blocks while stifling any whiff of post play.

Experience also made a difference. After Middle Tennessee took its first lead of the game early in the second half, fifth-year senior Michael Gbinije took over for Syracuse. He scored seven straight points to ignite a 21-2 run that blew the doors off the Blue Raiders. Gbinije finished with 23.

Not a particularly deep team, the Orange nonetheless got contributions from several different sources this weekend and put four guys in double figures on Sunday. They shot a blistering 63.6 percent in the second half. Everything went right. When little-used freshman Frank Howard came in off the bench during the second half, he promptly bounced in an 18-footer.

Drawing Dayton and Middle Tennessee certainly wasn't the toughest assignment of the tournament's opening weekend. Still, Syracuse cruises into Chicago playing as well on both ends as it has all season. Who knows what to expect if that continues.