They lost an exhibition to a Division II school, started the season unranked and nobody seemed sure how the Syracuse Orange would overcome the losses of their top three scorers. It could've been a tough season, and it would've made sense. But instead it developed into one of the great seasons in Syracuse history, and the reward came Sunday when the Orange received a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament
Why they'll win it: The Orange have a Hall of Fame coach in Jim Boeheim, a star in Wesley Johnson, a great shooter in Andy Rautins and quality pieces at every other spot on the court. This is a team of guys who understand their roles, and they're among the best nationally in terms of offensive efficiency. There's a reason the Orange won the Big East by two games. It's because they're really good.
|Jim Boeheim hopes Scoop Jardine keeps up his strong play. (Getty Images)|
Players to watch: The centerpiece is Johnson, an Iowa State transfer who is averaging 16.0 points and 8.4 rebounds per game while teaming with Rautins to create one of the nation's best two-three combos. From in the lane or beyond the arc, either is capable of popping off at any time. Syracuse is tough to handle when both play well.
Best off the bench: Kris Joseph is averaging 11.3 points and 5.4 rebounds as a reserve, but his role could change if Onuaku is limited or even temporarily sidelined. Under that scenario, Joseph would almost certainly move into the starting lineup, leaving the Orange with little ammo off the bench and nothing of note in the form of frontcourt reserves.
Soaring/slumping: Scoop Jardine is one of the bright spots in Syracuse's recent downswing. He's averaging 16.3 points in his past four outings and got 20 points and six assists at Louisville last weekend. Meantime, Rick Jackson played 32 minutes in Thursday's loss to Georgetown and got just four points and four rebounds. That's unacceptable for a 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward.
Notable stat: The Orange are shooting 57.2 percent on 2-pointers. Nobody makes 2-pointers at a higher rate.
Last time as a No. 1 seed: 1980 (lost in the Sweet 16 to Iowa).
Last time won a national championship: Freshman phenom Carmelo Anthony led the Orange to the 2003 national title, becoming the first true one-and-done star to carry a team to a championship. He entered the NBA Draft and was taken behind Darko Milicic, which seemed dumb at the time and looks 500,000 times dumber now.
All-time starting five: G: Sherman Douglas; G: Dave Bing; F: Billy Owens; F: Carmelo Anthony; F: Derrick Coleman.
Final thought: History suggests it takes three future NBA players to win a national title, and I'm not sure there are three on Syracuse's roster. For that reason alone, I'm skeptical. But it should be noted that the only coach in the past 40 years to win a title without three future NBA players is Boeheim -- he's not trying to do anything that he hasn't done before.
Bottom line, if this was anybody but the Orange, I would discount them entirely.
But a Boeheim-Johnson-Rautins combo might be good enough.