It’s not difficult to identify the strengths that make Syracuse such a stalwart contender.
Syracuse is long and athletic. Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone pushes opponents to the court’s margins, disguising the pockets of space as gaps while luring them into traps. They flood the lane.
Analytic stats, which allows one to label the effectiveness and potential of teams better than at any time in college basketball history, love the Orange.
Entering the weekend, the Orange had allowed just 25.0 PPG in the paint according to ESPN Stats & Information, third-fewest among power conference schools. They also possessed the ACC’s top offensive rebounding rate (41 percent) and its best defensive turnover percentage (Syracuse had forced turnovers on one-quarter of its opponents’ possessions in its first 17 games).
The polls love the Orange (second in the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls). Ken Pomeroy’s module loves the Cuse (No. 2 overall on KenPom.com), too.
The only mark against Syracuse is a strength of schedule that’s 14th among the BPI’s top-15 squads (91st).
That collection of numbers did not mean much to Boeheim as his team lost its lead during a 59-54 win over Pittsburgh in the Carrier Dome on Saturday.
Lamar Patterson missed five of his first seven shots but put up a few miracle 3-pointers in the second half that killed the vibe. His second clutch 3 put Pitt ahead with 6:02 to play.
Those shots allowed Syracuse's lofty numbers to be pushed aside for the oft-referenced -- and cliché -- eye test.
Everything we really needed to know about Syracuse was reaffirmed against the Panthers in the final minutes.
It wasn’t the team’s first bout with drama this season, as Syracuse encountered turbulence against Miami, Boston College and even St. Francis (N.Y.). But those were nothing compared to what beset the Orange on Saturday.
Pitt was roaring rapidly, as the Panthers nibbled away at a 10-point deficit in the second half that seemed like 30 in a low-scoring affair before taking the lead on Patterson's second 3-pointer.
That's when Ennis emerged.
There were his two layups that ultimately put Cuse ahead by three points with 32 seconds to play. His late free throws essentially sealed it.
He’s a freshman with a veteran’s vision, an assertive leader. He doesn’t panic -- he just goes.
The common theme among last year’s Final Four teams was their trustworthy point guards. Michael Carter-Williams, Trey Burke, Malcolm Armstead and Peyton Siva were critical players in their respective squads’ runs to Atlanta.
Ennis has that DNA, too.
In a significant league matchup, he belied his age with his effectiveness and poise, and did it with the game on the line.
Grant is a pro. He’s relentless on both ends of the floor, as his jump shot kicked off a 12-4 run that gave Syracuse temporary separation in the second half.
The Orange's defense picked up, too. That last 3-pointer by Patterson was his last field goal of the game, as he missed his final three shots due in large part to Syracuse's suffocating defense.
Boeheim has everything for an ACC and national title run.
Syracuse’s numbers were strong on Saturday. It shot 51 percent from the field and held Pitt to 38 percent shooting.
In the process, the Orange proved that they're a legitimate national title contender again and the team to beat in the ACC. Not simply because of what the stat sheet says but also based on the manner in which they closed the game.
Syracuse’s ACC slate will offer additional tests in the near future. There’s a highly anticipated game against Duke on Feb. 1. The Orange will travel to Pitt (Feb. 12) and Duke (Feb. 22) next month, and a road game at Virginia on March 1 should also be a challenge.
But on Saturday, Syracuse certainly passed the eye test.
Its grade? A. As in “America’s best team.”