SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- For a team that’s been as impressive as Syracuse has in its march to a 16-0 record and No. 2 ranking in both polls, the Orange could be the hardest team to impress as any in the nation.
Syracuse handled North Carolina 57-45 and held the Tar Heels to a historic-low scoring output while establishing itself as the ACC front-runner in the process.
Duke, the overwhelming preseason pick to win the league, lost its second league road game at Clemson. The Blue Devils are just one game above Carolina, which was picked third in the preseason, and now, with its third straight conference loss, owns sole possession of the cellar.
Pittsburgh hasn’t cracked the polls, although it is tied with Syracuse at the top of the standings. And Virginia, which also started the day unbeaten in the league, has been embarrassed enough times this season (Wisconsin, at Tennessee) that it doesn’t strike fear into opponents.
The Orange, however, can potentially do just that. From the unknown element of ACC opponents having to face their zone for the first time to actually figuring out how to defend their growing arsenal of weapons, the Orange will be handful during their inaugural ACC run.
Carolina had no answer, especially for Jerami Grant, who was recently inserted in the starting lineup. He posted his second straight double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds against the Tar Heels.
UNC forward J.P. Tokoto said that out of pride he didn’t want to agree that Syracuse was the No. 1 team in the ACC, but “playing against us the way they did today, yes, they definitely are.”
Yet it seems it’s a hard time convincing the Orange of that. There were no signs in the locker room that winning registered as anything special. No loud music blaring. No players playing jokes on one another. There really weren’t even a lot of smiles or laughter.
“They don’t get that high, they’re not celebrating a lot -- they haven’t celebrated yet,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “I don’t think they even celebrated [the Maui Invitational] that much and that was a good tournament win. They’ve been good, they come to work every day.”
Most days at work don’t take place before 32,121 at the Carrier Dome, even for the Orange. Last weekend against Miami in their ACC opener, attendance was just 21,839. The game bested the 28,153 who watched the Orange against former Big East foe Villanova as the season’s best crowd.
Syracuse senior C.J. Fair at least would admit having the Tar Heels come through for the first time as a conference opponent gave a different energy in the Dome.
“This is a great statement game for us to the teams in the league to show them we’re coming our first year to win it,” Fair said.
That’s about as big as it gets as far as declarations go on this team.
Syracuse freshman point guard Tyler Ennis said being 3-0 in the league meant only that it was still a long season ahead. Boeheim wouldn’t even say he has a great team.
“You’re going to get beat up in a league like this, no matter who you are, unless you have a great team,” Boeheim said. “And there’s no great teams anymore.”
North Carolina coach Roy Williams would disagree.
Williams watched the Heels tie the 1996-97 team for their lowest scoring output of the shot-clock era. It also represented the lowest point total for a Williams-coached team in his 896 games.
“There are some other good teams in our league, Syracuse so far has played better than everybody else, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Williams said. “They’ve accomplished more. They’re 16-0. So everybody is going to have to play their best, there’s no question. You’re not going to beat Syracuse unless you’re playing to the top of your potential.”
And that came after Carolina caught the Orange on an off game offensively.
Ennis had not had more than two turnovers in a game this season but totaled four on Saturday. Trevor Cooney, who entered the game shooting 45 percent from 3-point range, managed to make just 2 of 12 from behind the arc. The Orange shot a season-low 35.0 percent from the field.
But they never trailed UNC after taking the lead midway through the first half.
“Today impressed us more than other wins because I don’t think we played that well offensively, but we played really well defensively,” Cooney said.
Rakeem Christmas had four of Syracuse’s nine blocks, which is the most for a UNC opponent this season.
With a 16-0 start to the season, it’s valid to wonder if the Orange have improved this season to the point that they are better than their Final Four team of last season.
“I don’t know which team is better,” Fair said. “But I think we have the same shot to get to the championship game.”