#3 Syracuse saw #2 Ohio State go down to Kansas early in the day on Saturday and #1 Kentucky go down to Indiana on a last second 3-pointer after the start of their game against George Washington, which turned into an 85-50 blowout for the Orange, who are 10-0 to start the season for the third straight year and are about to be #1 during the season for just the 2nd time in history (following a 1-week stay in 2010). And you know what? They are that good. With all the off-the-court distractions surrounding an assistant coach (which has nothing to do with the current players on the team) and the shaky end to last season (round of 32 loss to Marquette) and the loss of the best player on the team to graduation (Rick Jackson), I wasn't quite sure this would turn into something special. But they really are that good. This version of Syracuse Orange basketball, for the 2nd time in 3 years, is good enough to win it all. And this year's team has something that the 2010 squad did not have, a something that killed it in the postseason after Arinze Onuaku went down with a knee injury and we had freshman center DaShonte Riley playing significant minutes for the first time in his career in a loss to Butler (who went on to the NCAA Finals). Onuaku graduated, Riley redshirted the following year and then transferred because the team that currently wears the Orange is too good for him to even sniff a shot at playing time. For the first time in Jim Boeheim's career (or at least the first time I can remember), this Orange team has depth. Amazingly talented depth. And they are poised to go a long way.
At guard, the starting lineup is fifth-year senior Scoop Jardine and junior Brandon Triche, the definition of a veteran backcourt who have been through all the wars in the Big East already. Triche is a natural scorer who unfortunately tended to back off last year but seems more assertive this year. Scoop is a horrible shooter and decision-maker but if he plays within himself -- like he did in the past few games, including the win over #10 Florida last weekend -- he can be a strong asset on the team. They both play good defense and Scoop leads the team in steals (and assists) this season. But neither of them is the best guard on the team. Dion Waiters, Scoop's cousin, is not only the best guard on the team but possibly the best player on the team and one of the best talents in the country. And yeah, he's coming off the bench. Waiters was a top recruit but didn't quite buy into Boeheim's defense-first system last year and found himself benched quite a bit after boneheaded mistakes. We all were worried he'd transfer after the limited minutes but instead, he got himself into excellent physical condition over the summer and excellent mental condition overall and the results are staggering. Every time he steps on the floor he's instantly the best player on the floor and provides immediate offensive -- and shockingly -- defensive boosts that cannot be underestimated. Waiters is quite clearly the best defensive guard we have, despite not giving a crap about the position last year. It's his work, along with Scoop's, that has Syracuse leading the country in steals right now. The team -- a talented offense and explosive transition team -- has won this year with defense, a zone defense clicking on all cylinders right now... which is a huge, massive improvement over last year. This team could go a long way.
At forward, the other best player on the team is senior wingman Kris Joseph, who came into his junior year with huge expectations (and worries that he'd be in the NBA by season's end) but he was very tentative on offense, made too many mistakes on defense, and generally took a backseat to Rick Jackson and the guards on the team. This year, it's been his team and he's taken control. His offensive game is refined and his defense and rebounding is vastly improved. He's the star of the team (at least when Waiters is on the bench) and he's definitely good enough to carry them when he needs to. And again, he's got a boatload of experience. The other forward slot is being largely carried by sophomore CJ Fair, a great rebounder and solid defender who is huge at doing the "little things" well, which is what we need from that position, with so much greatness at the guard and Joseph slot. Fair doesn't seem to have a bad game and Coach Boeheim has a ton of confidence in him so he ends up playing a lot, even though he doesn't have the scoring ability or size of the other players at his position. James Southerland is the forward he's splitting time with the most and the junior is a great outside shooter and pure scorer but he's struggled this season against man-to-man offenses and hasn't seen a ton of time against the really good schools. He can be a very valuable asset off the bench, though, and Boeheim likes to use him. He's got to be great though, because there's no way Joseph's going to be on the bench much and Fair does too much good to sit too often. Elite freshman Rakeem ("Rock") Christmas actually gets the starts at the 4 slot, but against the good teams, he' s on the bench after 2 minutes and doesn't sniff the court again. He's very raw but very talented and could prove necessary (and worthy) if the team runs into foul trouble at the center position. But he is a little overmatched right now. Someday soon he will be a star.
Speaking of center, the one player most responsible for the improvement of Syracuse this season vs. last is the 7'0" Brazilian Fab Melo, who came in as preseason Big East freshman of the year last year but played like an out of shape, overweight, overmatched mess who frequently got the Rock Christmas defacto start/spend the rest of the night on the bench treatment. He was lost on defense and showed no signs of offense for most of the season, at least until a few flashes late in the year. But this year -- he's a completely different player. It's not simply night and day. It's night and some other language that describes some sort of time between space and light that doesn't really exist in our reality. He's a budding star that dominates on defense at times and has quickness and skills on the offensive end that are rarely seen in someone so tall. He lost a ton of weight, has the stamina and speed to run end-to-end, and has dedicated himself to the game this season. And it shows. No longer is the center spot a liability like it was last year (where Jackson ended up having to play a ton of time because of Melo's shortcomings). It's now a strength. Especially on defense, where the center position becomes such a major key to the zone defense. He and Christmas and Fair and Baye Keita are blocking shots like crazy, against everyone, so much so that teams are already reluctant to bring the ball inside. Sure, there will still be some shitty team that just launches 30 foot 3-pointers and hits a bunch of them to beat us, but we are not going to get beat up inside by the likes of an undersized Marquette team. Fab is too strong. Baye Keita has been reduced to backup status in his sophomore year (he played more minutes than Fab last year) but he's been mostly solid and could step up if Melo gets into any foul trouble (which hasn't happened yet, Fab's been incredibly under control). Plus, Christmas can slide over if there's any serious issues there. Did I mention how much depth we have this year?
So that's 9 players getting featured for regular minutes on the team. That doesn't even count freshman guard Michael Carter-Williams, who is already a strong defender and brilliant passer with a really good outside shot at times but who hasn't played much at all against the good teams and will probably have to wait until next year when Scoop is gone to get a lot of playing time. But he'd be a freshman starter on most teams in the NCAA. That's how good this Syracuse team is.
Now in all the years I've watched Syracuse, I've never seen Boeheim go much deeper than 8 players. In fact, he usually settles on 7 seeing any serious minutes during conference time. I suspect the two freshman -- Christmas and Carter-Williams -- won't get much time at all during conference play and if Southerland isn't making outside shots, his time could also prove limited. But even if Boeheim settles into a 7 or 8 man rotation, the skill set and quality of each of those players is well beyond teams he's put out there only 3 or 4 years ago. Remember how many minutes Kristoff Ongenaet used to get? He graduated in 2009, so it wasn't that long ago. Yeah, there's no way he'd be on the top 10 on this team. Even as a senior.
So we'll see. The season's still young and Syracuse starts off strong in the non-conference schedule just about every year. But there's something about this team: the confidence, the skills, the swagger, the defense. They will be #1 in the country tonight. I think they have just as good a chance as anyone to be #1 in April.