Who could give Syracuse's starting five a tough game? Its second five

by | CBSSports.com College Basketball Insider
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Fab Melo starts every game for Syracuse, but doesn't get a starter's minutes (22.8 per game). (AP)  
Fab Melo starts every game for Syracuse, but doesn't get a starter's minutes (22.8 per game). (AP)  

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- It's a legitimate question posed to the Syracuse duo of Philly-bred guards, Scoop Jardine and Dion Waiters.

Which team is superior? No, not Syracuse or Kentucky. Not the Orange and North Carolina.

How about the Orange starting unit, the one run by the veteran Jardine -- or the one that comes off the bench, featuring Waiters?

"It's us," Jardine said. "We don't lose."

"Of course that's what he says," Waiters responds. "He's lying."

The craziest aspect is that there's actually a legitimate argument to discern whether the starting unit, one that consists of Jardine and Brandon Triche in the backcourt, Kris Joseph on the wing and Fab Melo and Rakeem Christmas up front, has an edge over the second group -- one featuring Waiters, James Southerland and Michael Carter-Williams on the perimeter with C.J. Fair and Baye Keita up front.

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"It's close," admitted former Orange star and current assistant Gerry McNamara. "Real close."

Jim Boeheim said he rarely puts these two units up against one another in practice anymore, but they went at it every day the first couple weeks of practice back in October.

"It was a war," Jardine admitted.

This Syracuse team doesn't overwhelm you with NBA-caliber talent, but they wear opponents down. It's power in numbers.

That's exactly what happened to Providence on Wednesday night. The Friars played with the 'Cuse for much of the game, but ultimately the Orange had too many answers and pulled away for an 87-73 victory.

Six of Boeheim's players finished in double figures. Jardine had a double-double with 11 assists, Triche made four consecutive shots at one point to keep Providence at bay and Southerland had only five points, but knocked down a huge 3-pointer with eight minutes left that put Syracuse up by 12. Waiters came up with a couple of huge baskets down the stretch -- including one with 4:20 remaining on a perfect pass from Jardine. Carter-Williams, a freshman, played exceptionally well in the first half -- but didn't even see the floor after the break.

"I've got to imagine it's a tough job for Coach rotating guys in and out," Joseph said. "He's subbing like hockey, but he makes it work. I don't think any of the guys are unhappy with their playing time. Everyone understands their role."

"We honestly have 10 starters," Waiters said.

Jardine is the leader. That much is clear.

After that, there's pressure on guys to play -- and perform well -- or else they could find themselves on the bench with the game on the line. It happened to Jardine at Madison Square Garden earlier this season -- and could happen to just about anyone.

"We've got a lot of go-to guys," Boeheim said. "We don't have one guy. We have a lot of them."

"It keeps us going," Jardine added. "No one can relax."

Waiters might be the most talented player on the team and he has matured enough to accept his role coming off the bench. Jardine has made dramatic strides with his leadership abilities.

"He's the most unguardable player I've had in the backcourt," Boeheim admitted of Waiters. "He's difficult to guard."

"He's at another level," Providence coach Ed Cooley added.

Kentucky and North Carolina might have collected more overall NBA talent, but this team is currently No. 1 in the nation for a reason. In the midst of the Bernie Fine saga, this group has found a way to win its first 16 contests. True, the Orange have yet to be tested by the Big East big boys, but this is one of the few teams in the nation that can withstand an off night from a key player and still come away with a victory.

The bench entered the game averaging 37.5 points -- which is tops in the country. Waiters had 13, Fair a dozen, and Southerland and Carter-Williams added five apiece.

"They're fun to watch," Cooley said. "I told my team that. He [Boeheim] can pick and choose who he wants to play, but what I really love about them is their cohesiveness."

And when Jardine and Waiters were done arguing with which one another, they came to the same conclusion as their soft-spoken leading scorer.

"Our second five could start for just about any Big East team," Joseph added. "And that's what makes us great."

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