When it’s highly acclaimed to start seasons, Syracuse doesn’t always bode well. Playing with prosperity has served as an ever-present, unshakable opponent for a number of Jim Boeheim’s teams. The year Syracuse won the national title, they were a 3 seed — and not a ranked team prior to the 2002-03 season.
But this year, expectations haven’t slowed or scared the Orange. Amazingly, this year, of all years, that’s not the case.
Syracuse decidedly beat No. 9 Florida Friday night at the Carrier Dome, 72-68. You might’ve forgotten that, considering everything that happened afterward.
The nation’s second-most effective turnover team forced Florida into 20 giveaways. A month into college basketball, Syracuse is also best, appropriately enough, at swiping the ball (18 percent of opponents possessions). The Orange pickpocketed the Gators 10 times.
What else, what else … oh, yes, Syracuse is tops offensive rebound percentage, snaring 45.2 percent of its misses. They are gaudy numbers, ones that signal the 2-3 zone could be in for one of its better years up in central New York. We had Syracuse ranked No. 4 in the preseason here at CBSSports.com, and the Orange have done us the kind favor of looking rather on-point in that prognostication. (No other major media outlet or magazine, to my knowledge, had SU that high.)
The primary point here: What I took strictly from a basketball sense after ‘Cuse got that good win over the Gators is Boehiem’s team played as well against inferior competition thus far as it did against a group that many think can make the Final Four. I’ll amend that and say SU didn’t play well in all areas, but still convincingly beat UF. Not easy to do, even if the Gators didn’t have Erik Murphy, who’s a matchup problem for a lot of teams.
“This is our first really bad shooting game,” Boeheim said afterward. The Orange were 40.6 from the field at 17.6 from 3 (an abysmal 3-of-17). No matter — Florida never had control of the second half.
If you check out Syracuse’s schedule, you’ll see the Orange just got a win over the best non-conference opponent it will face until the NCAA tournament, and maybe even then Syracuse doesn’t get to play a team as good as Florida is right now.
It’s got North Carolina state on the road Dec. 17, but most should agree home against ninth-ranked Florida’s a tougher game than a road game against improving-but-raw N.C. State. The next conceivable — and I’m going to be kind here — tough game Syracuse will have against a team that can threaten it is home against Marquette on Jan. 7. The next true test of high caliber is the UConn game at home, and that doesn’t come until Feb. 11.
It’s going to take a little while longer (actually, who knows what the timeline is; when and if more information about the Bernie Fine case comes out, all of that will still remain the bigger story) for Syracuse’s basketball team to get recognized more for what it’s doing this year. But this group is experienced in these kinds of distractions. And it’s played well amid them.
Remember February? A whole 10 months ago? It was then when an erroneous rumor surfaced that Syracuse was throwing games. The Orange started 18-0 (bet you forgot that, too), then lost four straight, and someone propped up a stupid rumor on a messageboard. After that became public, Syracuse beat UConn and won seven of its final nine regular season games.
Boeheim said the Fine mess hasn’t been a distraction for his team. It looks like he’s telling the truth. His team played well amid controversy last season, and it’s done so with aplomb again this year. You’d just have to look a little harder and beyond the bigger headlines to see it. Right now, Syracuse is the best team in the Big East, and one of the three best teams in the country.Photo: Getty Images