Had a chance to get my second in-person look at the Syracuse basketball team yesterday and I continue to be convinced that this team is a serious contender for the national championship. Yes, the Orange men squandered much of a 23-point lead in the second half against a pugnacious Marquette team, but they answered with a knockout punch when they were on the ropes to remain unbeaten (17-0) and top-ranked.
The play of the game – both for impact and entertainment value – was Dion Waiters’ shot block and fast-break score with just under five minutes remaining and SU nursing a four-point lead. Darius Johnson-Odom had just released a three-point shot from the left of the key, but it didn’t get far as Waiters elevated quickly and very high to reject it. What made the play even more memorable was that Waiters not only blocked the shot, but blocked it in such a way that he was able to retrieve the ball on the fly and swoop in for the layup that took the momentum out of the Marquette surge.
The Orange men wound up winning by seven against a Golden Eagles team that had beaten them twice last year, including that knock-out blow in the NCAA tournament.
This was a very good test for SU, which needed a close contest after beating its first 16 opponents by an average of more than 20 points.
This team reminds me of a deeper version of the squad two years ago that would have won a national championship had center Arinze Onuaku not suffered that leg injury before the NCAA tournament.
I like the way the current Orange play defense. (There was an 11-minute stretch yesterday when Marquette was held without a basket.)
I like their unselfishness. (On at least two occasions, an Orangeman could have driven in for a bucket on a fast break, but instead dished off to a teammate for the score.)
I like their senior leadership. Props to Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph, who have set a good example for the younger players. Even during those times when things aren't going well for them individually and they are on the bench next to Boeheim for long stretches, they continue to exhort on their teammates rather than pout. That's mature leadership and rubs off on the younger players.
I like their 10-deep rotation. The bench crew, led by Waiters and C.J. Fair, is as good as if not better than the starting five, chipping in with 46 percent of the points scored by SU so far.
And I like the way these young men have been able to keep their focus, especially amid the media circus surrounding the Bernie Fine allegations.
The next stretch of the schedule finds SU on the road at Villanova, back home against Providence and Pitt and on the road against Notre Dame and Cincinnati. Those are all winnable games and should SU take care of business in those contests, it will establish a school record for most wins to start a season. (The current mark is 19-0.)
Winning at South Bend and Cincy won’t be easy, but if the Orange men get by those challenges, they could be taking their No. 1 ranking and unbeaten streak into February, where the toughest part of their schedule (Connecticut and Louisville) awaits.
This is not to say this is a team without flaws. As we saw Saturday, Scoop Jardine remains erractic and Fab Melo sometimes allows himself to be goaded into a foolish foul. Plus, the Orange men grew complacent for a stretch at the start of the second half and became lackadaisical at both ends of the floor.
But they have the depth to overcome off-nights by their front-line people.
They have a lot of go-to guys.
And for the first time in Jim Boeheim’s 36 seasons, he’s been willing to go very deep into his lineup.
Speaking of Boeheim, he is now just four wins from supplanting Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp (876) and just seven wins shy of surpassing North Carolina’s Dean Smith (879) on the all-time win list. Those milestone victories will put him in third place, behind only Bobby Knight (902) and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who continues to be the pace-setter with 912 wins and counting. Unless Coach K abruptly decides to call it quits, Boeheim is going to have to be content with No. 2 (as long as Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun doesn’t catch him from behind.)
When Boeheim passes Smith, he’ll be able to claim the crown as the winningest men’s coach at a single school, and given Jim’s loyalty to SU that’s going to be a pretty significant milestone for him personally.