College Basketball Nation: Kris Joseph

Five Questions: Syracuse's Brandon Triche

September, 26, 2012
Brandon TricheMichael Ivins/US PresswireSyracuse's Brandon Triche is ready for his turn to shine in the spotlight.
Editor's Note: In the buildup to Midnight Madness, we are taking an in-depth look at Joe Lunardi's top five seeds in a series called Countdown To Madness. In addition to the Insider pieces, Eamonn Brennan will offer Three Big Things about each team and we'll have Five Questions with a player or coach from each squad.

Scoop Jardine wasn’t born in a Syracuse uniform.

It just seemed that way.

The point guard for the Orange spent five years on campus, becoming, along with sidekick Kris Joseph, both the face and the personality of the Syracuse program. Feisty and tough, proud but not arrogant.

The partners in success are gone now, along with Dion Waiters and Fab Melo, turning the keys of this upstate New York Cadillac over to Brandon Triche.

His soft-spoken personality is completely different from his predecessors, but his game is not. Triche has started every game of his career, topping the 1,000-point mark during last year’s NCAA tournament run. He has proven to be both a reliable scorer and a smart floor general.

But he has been able to do all of that from the anonymous comfort of a supporting role.

Now the Orange belong to him.

Syracuse has lost plenty -- Melo and Waiters, as well as Jardine and Joseph -- but return more than enough to keep the insatiable fan base expecting plenty again.

How well Triche adjusts will go a long way in determining how smoothly the transition goes for Syracuse in this, the Orange’s last year in the Big East. caught up with the senior to see how his time in the spotlight was going.

Is it strange to look around and not see Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph on the court with you?

Brandon Triche: Yeah, it’s a lot different, obviously. All the years I’ve been here, I’ve had them, but in some ways it’s more fun for me. I get to be one of the team leaders. I finally get my turn.

Speaking of leadership, are you ready to fill that role and what kind of leader will you be?

BT: I’m definitely ready. Scoop and Kris prepped me to be in this position. I learned a lot from those guys and in high school, I was pretty much the go-to guy my whole time so it’s not like it’s new. I’m more of a leader by action, not so much verbal. I’m working on being more verbal. What I’ve found out is the guys on this team are willing to listen. That’s half the battle, having guys who trust you. You have to have that inner circle behind you or it doesn’t work and I have that here.

This is the last year for Syracuse in the Big East. Is there talk about going out of the conference with a bang?

BT: Definitely. I mean, we all want to end our career with a bang, so it’s not just leaving the Big East, but winning in general. The last couple of years we had teams capable of winning it all, so nothing’s changed. We have the same goals. But, yeah, winning the Big East would be special. It’s always special.

Has it hit you yet that this is your last year at Syracuse?

BT: It did at the beginning of the season. Mostly it’s when I look around campus and everybody looks so young. I’m so old. That’s what hits me the most. I’m really a senior. I’ve learned a lot. I wish I knew then that this wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. There are a lot of times you don’t get everything you deserve or want, but you’ve got to keep working.

Speaking of Syracuse, you’re from Jamesville, right around the corner. This could be the last year in your hometown as well. Are you ready to leave the nest?

BT: Definitely, I’m ready. Syracuse is a cool city to live in when you’re about 40 or 50 years old. As far as the lifestyle and activities, it’s a little bit boring when you’re my age. I’m ready for something maybe a little more fast paced. And a little warmer.

BOSTON – Somewhere, some clever Syracuse fan ought to grab a red cape, a magic marker, ink a Z on his chest and call himself The Zone.

In this NCAA tournament, the Zone (yes, it deserves to be capitalized) has grown to near-mythological proportions and taken on the aura and presence of a superhero, complete with superpowers.

How do you beat the Zone? Why do you play it? How unique is it? What makes it so hard?

It is everywhere, an all-consuming beast. In the two press conferences between Syracuse and Ohio State, on the eve of their Elite Eight match, the word zone was mentioned 50 times.

Heck, if the Orange win the national title, the Zone could earn Most Outstanding Player honors.

Here’s the dirty little secret: The Zone does not have superpowers, nor is Orange coach Jim Boeheim some evil scientist who has concocted something no one in basketball can duplicate.

The Syracuse coach is just committed (or stubborn, pick your word). He does not waver if teams are shooting well against the Zone (as Wisconsin did) and he does not give his players the option of man-to-man defense.


“They buy into it because they want to play,’’ Boeheim laughed. "These guys know what we want to do, what we’re about. They work hard at it.’’

Boeheim, in fact, is tickled at people’s preoccupation with his defense, as if he’s unearthed some sort of relic from the peach-basket days.

“It’s always funny to me,’’ he said. “You never hear anybody yelling at Mike Krzyzewski to go back and play zone. Why is that? He’s such a good coach, you don’t question him? Is that what it is? Really? Somebody shook their head down there. OK, that means I’m not a good coach, so you can question me.’’

Thad Matta would beg to differ. The Ohio State coach will be the next to attempt to slay the Zone, on Saturday night, and while he knows conventional wisdom holds the easiest way to beat a good zone is to shoot 3s, he also watched Wisconsin drain 14 and lose.

“A couple of years ago I heard what I thought was the greatest answer from Coach Boeheim,’’ Matta said. “Somebody asked him, 'What do you do when somebody gets really hot against your zone and they’re making 3s?' He said, ‘How do you know they’re not going to make them against man-to-man?’ He has his philosophy and he’s only won 900 or however many games he’s won. It works for him.’’

Whom to watch

[+] EnlargeWilliam Buford
Michael Ivins/US PresswireWilliam Buford's 1-of-8 against Cincinnati was the latest of weak Sweet 16 efforts; Ohio State needs more in the Elite Eight.
William Buford, Ohio State: Matta went out of his way to commend his senior for his defensive effort against Cincinnati. And it was deserved. It also was welcome deflection from Buford’s offensive woes.

The Sweet 16 has not been kind to Buford. He has played in that round three consecutive seasons and is 8-of-37, including an absentee 1-of-8 against the Bearcats on Thursday.

This season, however, is Buford's first appearance in the Elite Eight. Ohio State needs him to run with the clean start.

Wisconsin offered a nice little road map for their Big Ten brethren in terms of beating the Syracuse zone– hit 3s. Now, expecting Ohio State to be as red-hot as the Badgers is probably silly, but the Buckeyes do have shooters.

Which is where Buford comes in. He’s one of those shooters and he needs to make those 3s.

“The great thing about William is he usually bounces back,’’ Matta said. “Hopefully the odds say tomorrow some higher percentage will be going in for him. But yeah, we need Will to play well.’’

Scoop Jardine, Syracuse: One of Syracuse’s hidden strengths this season is its ability to take care of the basketball. The Orange are eighth in the country, committing just 10.5 turnovers per game.

That number will meet its match in the form of Aaron Craft. Arguably the best on-the-ball defender in the country, Ohio State's sophomore guard is a relentless gnat who not only swats at the ball but also frustrates his opponent into mistakes.

Jardine, typically the primary ball handler for Syracuse, had been very good until Thursday’s regional semifinal against Wisconsin when the senior coughed up the ball five times.

That can’t happen against Craft. Ohio State will turn those miscues into points – the Buckeyes got 20 points off turnovers against Cincinnati – but more crucially, OSU is quite content in a grind-it-out, half-court game. If Jardine turns it over, that means more chances for Ohio State to dictate the tempo.

What to watch

This could be the first time that Syracuse feels sorely the absence of Fab Melo. Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita have done a more than admirable job for the Orange through this NCAA tournament run, but in their first three games, the duo has not faced anything quite like Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas.

The two are big, strong and armed with an arsenal of scoring touches. Most crucially for Christmas and Keita, Sullinger and Thomas help Ohio State rack up a plus-7.6 rebounding edge, good for sixth in the country — and good for lots of extended possessions. Christmas and Keita will have their work cut out for them in this game.

James [Southerland] and C.J. [Fair] are going to have to help us,’’ Orange forward Kris Joseph said of defending the Ohio State big men. “It’s going to be the weakside man on the back of the zone that’s going to be able to help the most when [they] get the ball down low. If Rakeem does a good enough job, we won’t need to, but it’s going to be our job definitely to give him a lot of help.’’

PITTSBURGH -- Scoop Jardine sort of hung there for a handful of seconds, inverted over a press table, a computer and the other superfluous paraphernalia of a sportswriter’s workspace, his legs dangling in the air and his hands somehow on the floor to complete the awkward handstand.

Brandon Triche came over to make sure Jardine wasn’t hurt, thinking maybe he could sort of use Jardine’s legs to crank his teammate to an upright position.

Just as he got there, though, Jardine stood up, his trademark grin smiling across his face.

“He said he always wanted to do something like that, go Dennis Rodman over the press table,’’ Triche said. “As soon as he got up, I knew he was fine. He was smiling.’’

And when Jardine is smiling everything is right in the Orange’s world.

Syracuse goes hockey-line deep, giving Jim Boeheim the delighted luxury of playing the constant tinkerer. If one guy is off, surely someone will be on.

But the Orange accelerate from good to special when Jardine and his senior cohort, Kris Joseph, are good and in the second half against Kansas State, Jardine found his extra gear, lifting Syracuse to the 75-59 win and a date in the Sweet 16.

“I’ve been here five years. This is about my legacy and I’m not ready for that to be written yet,’’ Jardine said. “We lost in this round last year [to Marquette] and I took that personal. That’s why I came back. I wasn’t going to let it happen again.’’

Since the brackets were revealed on Sunday, the news surrounding Syracuse has been about anything and everything but basketball. Fab Melo was suspended for the duration of the season on Tuesday, igniting a firestorm of conversation about just how the Orange would win without their big man and if the Orange could win without their big man.

[+] EnlargeSyracuse's Scoop Jardine
Richard Mackson/US PRESSWIREScoop Jardine was still smiling after a diving attempt to save a ball left him upside down.
Syracuse did little to quell the worries with a lackluster opener against UNC Asheville, a win that left plenty of people convinced questionable officiating victimized the Bulldogs.

On Saturday, particularly in the second half, the Orange redirected the conversation.

Playing arguably its best basketball in weeks, Syracuse finally looked like a No. 1 seed.

And more, it played like a team that wasn’t carrying around a Melo-sized albatross.

“We were having fun again, out there smiling,’’ Joseph said. “I think some of it maybe was because of pressure. We talked about it, me and Scoop, before the game to the team and at halftime. There’s no reason to not just go out and play. We know what we want to do. We know what we want to accomplish, so let’s just go do it.’’

It sounds easier than it is, frankly. Playing with a target isn’t easy and it’s especially difficult for the Orange, where the target flashes in neon amid the myriad controversies to have hit the team this season.

This team has had more doubters than fans as far back as November. There is no star here, no collection of future NBA talent ready to cash in shortly, which is usually the prerequisite for NCAA success.

A few doubters had to turn convert after this one, when Syracuse showed that the team-as-star theory can work quite nicely. Evidence? How about this? Syracuse had 33 bench points, Kansas State 0.

“Everyone says you have to have a go-to guy and I’m not sure if you’re not better if you have different guys,’’ said Jim Boeheim, who had no problem riding one guy to a national title in 2003. “We’ve had different guys make plays all year.’’

He’s right. On Thursday it was James Southerland saving Syracuse from epic disaster.

This time it was Jardine.

The difference is, the more often its Jardine, the better off the Orange is.

Kansas State, playing without Jamar Samuels, who was withheld due to eligibility concerns, gave Syracuse a dose of Big 12 toughness in the first half. The Wildcats didn’t merely expose Syracuse’s Achilles heel -- its rebounding -- it eviscerated it. Kansas State outrebounded the Orange, 28-16 and even more critically, 15-3 on the offensive glass.

That allowed the Wildcats to hang around, with Syracuse clinging to a 25-24 edge at the break.

But when Jordan Henriquez, who would finish with 14 points and 17 rebounds, picked up his third foul, it was all but over for K-State.

Syracuse should patent its ability to go on a run whenever it needs one. The next time the Wildcats looked up, the scoreboard went from 39-34 to 55-42.

In that dash, Jardine scored six points and dished out three assists, entirely converting his boxscore. In the opening 20, he had 2 points, three assists and four turnovers. By game’s end, he had 16, 8 and six.

“In the first half, in spite of what he might think, he struggled,’ Boeheim said. “He made some bad decisions. You know, I don’t know what he was doing on a couple of plays. And we struggled. But we’re a point guard-oriented team, especially when you play a team like Kansas State. They take away your wing passes, so you really have to do stuff off the dribble.’’

Which is where Jardine comes in.

Jardine does not lack for confidence. He insists he has played well for weeks, even though his coach has practically been begging Jardine and Joseph to play like seniors.

And he argues that his team has played just fine, too, though outsiders might beg to differ.

“I don’t know what a No. 1 seed is supposed to look like,’’ he said. “I just know we’re supposed to win and that’s what we’re doing.’’

They will continue to better their odds if Jardine continues to play as he did against Kansas State.

He was aggressive, going directly at Angel Rodriguez. Because he did, it opened a lid on a Syracuse offense that has been sealed shut recently.

“You know when Scoop is out there, playing aggressive like that, sacrificing his body, it makes us so much better,’’ Triche said. “We feed off of him and his energy. That’s what makes us go.’’

About that ‘sacrificing the body’ thing, Jardine has a confession to make.

“I made a bad shot,’’ he said sheepishly, “so I was trying to make up for it with dramatic effect.’’

And then Jardine smiled.

And all was right with the Orange.

PITTSBURGH -- Here’s a quick rundown of what to look for in Saturday’s third-round games at Consol Energy Center:

No. 1 seed Syracuse (32-2) vs. No. 8 Kansas State (22-10), 12:15 p.m. ET

One looks like The Thinker, pensively holding his chin in his hand as he solves the world’s mysteries from his courtside seat.

The other looks like The Incredible Hulk, his eyes narrowing and his veins popping as he flails at the world’s inadequacies from the bench.

Turns out there’s plenty of fire in Jim Boeheim and plenty of calm in Frank Martin.

We just don’t see it.

“I think it’s more behind closed doors,’’ Syracuse junior James Southerland said of Boeheim. “He’ll get after you if you make a mistake or if you’re not playing hard, but honestly, with him, I think you worry more if he’s not yelling at you.’’

The man who has perfected the art of blasé, passing off even the biggest disturbance with a hand flick or shoulder shrug, has built his outer calm over inner fire in 36 years of coaching. Boeheim is the constant.

The players change. The zone gets tinkered, but the coach stays the same.

Like a strict parent, Boeheim can get his players’ attention sometimes without raising his voice.

“I think the level of both of our intensities is high,’’ Boeheim said. “[Martin] may show his level a little more than I do. You know, I wouldn’t want him to be mad at me.’’

But beneath the withering stare, Martin actually is one of the gentler souls in the game. Affable and easy going, he’ll tell stories and poke fun at himself gladly.

On a recruiting visit to the home of Jordan Henriquez, Martin, a Cuban-American, started speaking in Spanish. Only Henriquez didn’t speak it.

“I started rambling off in Spanish because that’s my natural language,’’ Martin said. “I could tell the way he’s looking at me that something wasn’t right. When I finished that great first three or four sentences, he looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I don’t speak Spanish.’ You can imagine how I felt.’’

As for the on-court act, one that he promised to try to improve this season when he memorably vowed to clean up his own salty language if his student section would do the same, Martin makes no apologies.

“I’ve got my own way of doing things,’’ he said. “It was the way I was raised. I’m a little emotional. I’m not scared to show my emotion in public. Some guys are real emotional in private and they have a public personality. With me, what you see is what you get.’’

Who to watch: Kansas State’s Jamar Samuels. The Wildcats’ second-leading scorer was in the witness protection program against Southern Miss, making just one free throw and worse, taking zero shots from the floor. That can’t happen again. It puts too much pressure on Rodney McGruder and it doesn’t lead to good results for K-State. In six of the Wildcats’ 10 losses, Samuels failed to score in double digits.

But more critically in this particular game, Kansas State has to get some inside play against the Orange and try to establish Samuels against the replacements in the Syracuse lineup.

Syracuse’s Kris Joseph. The Orange senior is the leading scorer and de facto leader, but hasn’t played like that lately. From the Big East tournament to the NCAA tournament first round, Joseph is just 10-of-33.

That’s got to change, a point of emphasis that even Boeheim has stressed, insisting that the Orange will only go as far as Joseph and Scoop Jardine take them.

What to watch: The 3-point line. Kansas State is not a very good 3-point shooting team, hitting only 34 percent from the arc and making just 5.6 per game. Syracuse played its way to this point with its defense, in particular its defense on the arc. Teams hit only 30 percent on average against the Orange.

Of course much of that was with Fab Melo in the lineup, when the big man’s size allowed Syracuse to really stretch that zone. The Orange got back to that late against UNC Asheville, but that was after the Bulldogs already had done enough damage from the arc to make it a game.

K-State is going to have to drain some 3s in order to crack the zone, but the Orange are going to have to stretch wider, making the middle a little more vulnerable with Rakeem Christmas instead of Melo.

No. 2 seed Ohio State (28-7) vs. No. 7 Gonzaga (26-6), 2:45 p.m. ET

Asked how he thinks Ohio State, his third-round foe, views his team, Robert Sacre smiled.

He then rambled on about how the Buckeyes probably think his team is like the “United Nations, a bunch of guys from all over coming together to make it work,’’ before concluding that he’s certain the Buckeyes respected his team.

Which is true. Ohio State does respect Gonzaga.

But what Sacre danced around, what he wouldn’t say is what everyone always thinks and says about the Zags: they’re soft.

Big Ten equals brawn.

West Coast Conference equals finesses (a euphemism for soft).

“We played two Big Ten teams, Illinois and Michigan State, tough and came out of those, I think, showing who we were,’’ Sacre said. “But everybody expected us to lose those games and everyone still expects us to lose now.’’

The perception really is all wrong. The truth is, Ohio State scores more points than the Zags (75.1 to 74) and shoots better from the floor (48.6 percent to 47 percent), while soft Gonzaga actually outrebounds the Buckeyes (37.1 to 36.8)

And this soft team annually traverses the country to play just about anyone anywhere. Along with those two Big Ten games, Gonzaga this season played Notre Dame, Arizona, Butler and Xavier. Not exactly a pansy schedule.

“There’s nothing we can do about it; it’s the nature of the beast,’’ Sacre said. “All we can do is play basketball.’’

Which brings us to Saturday.

Ohio State will try to ground the more uptempo Zags into the ground and most figure Jared Sullinger and DeShaun Thomas will make life miserable for Elias Harris and Sacre.

If they can stand their ground, they might just be able to rewrite their own script.

Who to watch: Gonzaga’s Harris, who could be the Zags’ X factor. He has to keep track of OSU's Thomas, no easy task considering Thomas just went for a career-high 31, but Harris has the size and athleticism to make it interesting. More critical, with Kevin Pangos trying to get away from Aaron Craft and Sacre preoccupied by Sullinger, Harris needs to score.

Ohio State’s William Buford. For the same reasons as Harris, Buford is an X factor for the Buckeyes. The team’s third-leading scorer can be dominant (he dropped 29 on Purdue) and he can disappear (he came up with just four a night later against Michigan State). In this game, the senior needs to take charge and take advantage if he’s left alone.

What to watch: The frontcourt battle will get a lot of attention, but the game might be won or lost in the backcourt. That’s where Pangos will have to tango with Craft, one of the best defensive point guards in the game. Pangos has been a key offensive component for the Zags this season, averaging 13.8 points per game. They need him to score against the Buckeyes, but more critical, Pangos has to take care of the ball. He’s cut down on his turnovers considerably in recent weeks but has had his share of rough nights against more physical guards -- coughing it up five times against Xavier and Tu Holloway, for example.

PITTSBURGH -- Quick thoughts on Syracuse’s 72-65 win over UNC Asheville in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Overview: Let’s address the obvious first: This had nothing to do with Fab Melo.

Yes, the loss of the big man alters the way Syracuse plays, especially defensively, but not this much.

Syracuse needed to salvage a second-round win against 16th-seeded UNC Asheville because it debuted in the NCAA tournament as if it wanted to be anywhere but on the court. The Orange looked disinterested and dysfunctional from the opening tip, allowing the Bulldogs to start believing a miracle was possible.

That it wasn’t meant to be doesn’t change that a fragile team needs to quickly refocus. Otherwise, the curtain will close quickly for the Orange.

The lone saving grace for Syracuse was its defense. With Rakeem Christmas logging most of the second-half minutes, the Orange were able to extend their zone on the hot-shooting Bulldogs and ultimately hold them at bay.

Turning point: There were about 30 in this game, but the most critical was when referee Ed Corbett signaled an out-of-bounds call off UNC Asheville with less than a minute to play, sending Scoop Jardine to the line. Replays showed the call was, at best, questionable. The senior sunk both free throws and Brandon Triche followed with two more, giving the Orange the win in a game they desperately tried to lose.

Key player: His teammates ought to be slapping James Southerland on the back. He came off the bench to basically save the Orange in the second half. Southerland had just two points at the break but finished with 15, including five in the Orange’s game-deciding 8-0 run.

Key stat: This isn’t in the good department. This is in the must-fix department. Jim Boeheim said Wednesday that his seniors needed to play better than they did in New York. They didn’t. Kris Joseph and Jardine were a combined 6-of-18 from the floor and 1-of-9 from behind the arc. The two were only part of the shooting problem. Syracuse, despite the win, shot just 5-of-23 from behind the arc.

Miscellaneous: In his pregame presser, Jim Boeheim admitted that he used to play UNC Asheville in the regular season but has avoided scheduling the Bulldogs of late because “Eddie might come in and eat us," referring to Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach. … Sans Melo, Syracuse went more with the freshman Christmas than with Baye Keita. Not as active as Keita, Christmas is bigger and bulkier, a little more similar to Melo than Keita, which allows Syracuse to extend its zone as it has all season. … Asheville sub Keith Hornsby is the son of musician Bruce. Irrelevant but entertaining fact.

What’s next: Top-seeded Syracuse meets No. 8 seed Kansas State in the third round on Saturday.
PITTSBURGH -- Here’s a quick rundown of what to look for in Thursday’s afternoon games at Pittsburgh:

No. 8 Kansas State (21-10) vs. No. 9 Southern Miss (25-8), 12:40 p.m. ET

Back when he was an assistant at Cincinnati, Frank Martin watched Larry Eustachy try to rebuild both his career and his life at Southern Miss.

The two schools then were Conference USA foes, and let’s just say it wasn’t a fair fight.

“I remember how bad his team was that year, how frustrated he was with that team,’’ Martin said.

Fast-forward and the two are prepping to face one another in the NCAA tournament, Martin as the head coach with Kansas State and Eustachy with the Golden Eagles team he’s cultivated from nothing to the school’s third NCAA tournament berth.

Eustachy, his struggles with alcohol and his ignominious dismissal from Iowa State well documented, returns to the Dance for the first time in a decade a different person, comfortable in his own skin and happy to share his story.

“There’s nobody that’s got more scars on their fanny than me,’’ Eustachy said. “I could do this blindfolded and backwards and every day. So I think my story is a neat story. I think it’s a great story. I think it inspires people.’’

Martin is usually one of those people who gets inspired. But not this week. This week he’s more worried about what the Golden Eagles present than what his peer has overcome.

“For me, to see his team play, especially over the last 72 hours studying his team, it’s hilarious because it’s like watching his old Iowa State teams play,’’ Martin said. “It’s got Larry Eustachy stamped all over it. A lot of folks say we’re the hardest playing team in America. Well, Larry’s teams were the hardest playing teams when he was at Iowa State.’’

Who to watch:

Southern Miss’ Darnell Dodson. Dodson initially signed with Pittsburgh, wound up in a junior college, transferred to Kentucky and is now with the Golden Eagles. He’s a high-major player who has added a much-needed scoring punch to Southern Miss, averaging 11.1 points per game.

Kansas State’s Angel Rodriguez. The freshman point guard has given Martin a few gray hairs, averaging nearly as many turnovers (2.6) as he does assists (3.2). He’ll have to do more of the latter against Southern Miss’ tough group of guards.

What to watch: The Golden Eagles are not a very good shooting team -- they shoot only 40 percent from the floor -- which makes for tough sledding against a Kansas State squad that is tough-minded, particularly on the defensive end, and considerably bigger. Guards Angelo Johnson and Neil Watson need to be especially strong going to the basket.

No. 1 Syracuse (31-2) vs. No. 16 UNC-Asheville (24-9), 3:10 p.m. ET

More than a coach, Jim Boeheim is a basketball fan. He has a working knowledge of what teams are doing -- who’s good, who isn’t.

And while the seed line says his team is playing a walkover, the Syracuse coach knows better.

“They’re shocking to me to be a 16-seed,’’ Boeheim said. “I’m sure most people would say I’m just saying that, but I had seen them play already this year before we got the tapes in. I just think they’re a really good basketball team.’’

The Bulldogs certainly don’t look like a 16-seed, not with 24 wins, a huge cushion in the Big South Conference (winning by four games), an RPI of 91 and a more than respectable nonleague schedule, against the likes of North Carolina, Connecticut and Tennessee.

But the seed is the seed and the only stat that ultimately matters in the end is the obvious one: No No. 16 seed has beaten a No. 1 in NCAA tournament history.

It is the elephant in the locker room that every coach, who preaches that his team believes it can win every game, has to address.

UNC-Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach knows the history better than anyone. Just a year ago, his Bulldogs won in the First Four to set up a 1-16 game against Pittsburgh. The Bulldogs made that interesting, cutting the Panthers’ lead to six before eventually losing by 23.

That team, however, is now a year older and a year wiser. Biedenbach sports a veteran starting five -- four seniors and one junior -- who remember well what happened a year ago.

“All those things are neat, they’re fun and I love the talk shows and the reporters that write about that stuff,’’ Biedenbach said. “But being the first to do that is fascinating, too.’’

Who to watch:

Syracuse’s Rakeem Christmas/Baye Keita All eyes will be on the replacement Syracuse big men, given the charge to fill in for Fab Melo. Both have played in spurts, but none significantly or certainly on such a big stage. Neither has to be huge offensively -- that’s up to Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine to get their swagger back -- but they have to be good defensively.

UNC-Asheville’s Matt Dickey and J.P. Primm You can’t say one without the other. The two classmates have achieved more at Asheville than anyone before them, part of the school’s winningest class. More critical to this game, the pair are the premier gunslingers.

What to watch: The pace. UNC-Asheville likes to go, averaging 80 points per game, and it has five guys who can score. All the starters average double figures in scoring. They prefer to get to the hoop or get to the free throw line, where they shoot a strong 76 percent. How that works against Syracuse’s zone, even without Melo, will be interesting.

How No. 1 will fall: Syracuse

March, 13, 2012
Syracuse has played through immense adversity.

Bernie Fine was dismissed amid a sexual abuse scandal. Head coach Jim Boeheim made comments backing the assistant that he later retracted. A media firestorm ensued.

[+] EnlargeCooley
Matt Cashore/US PresswireSyracuse has proved vulnerable to physical big men like Notre Dame's Jack Cooley.
Yet the Orange stayed focused.

It looks like a team that’s built for a Final Four run. It's a balanced squad.

And this just in … Syracuse is a very deep team. The Orange have a 10-man rotation.

Dion Waiters is one of the most dynamic reserves in the nation. They’re led by a veteran guard in Scoop Jardine. Kris Joseph is one of the most talented players in the country.

The Orange have been doubted all season. But they just keep winning. And they’ve found that success despite a serious off-court distraction involving Fine. Plus, Fab Melo missed games due to academic trouble. And they still didn’t collapse.

I think this is a resilient squad that can compete with any team in the field.

But it’s not perfect.

Syracuse will fall when a team exposes and capitalizes on its rebounding woes (the Orange have struggled all year with giving up second-chance opportunities).

During a 64-61 overtime victory against Georgetown in February, the Hoyas had a 20-12 advantage on the offensive glass.

Ball control will be pivotal, too. Syracuse forces 16.6 turnovers per game and uses that defensive prowess to spur its crucial transition game.

A team that limits turnovers can make Syracuse play more honest. It'll lose when an opponent can take advantage of the gaps in Boeheim’s zone. In its only two losses of the season, Notre Dame shot 50 percent from beyond the arc and Cincinnati connected on 45 percent of its attempts from the 3-point line. Makes Vandy an intriguing team in the East region.

But a successful opponent will also have to be strong enough defensively to force the Orange to operate in the half court. They love to run and score on the break. They’re not, however, as creative with their half-court game.

They’re great when they’re running. Hard to stop on the break, but a successful opponent will slow them down and force them to use the shot clock instead of relying on quick buckets in transition.

I know the Orange didn’t have Melo against Notre Dame, but in Syracuse’s two losses, they were bullied by Jack Cooley and Yancy Gates inside. Their interior guys are long and athletic, but they’re not that strong or physical.

A successful opponent will have to take advantage of that.

Strength inside, second-chance buckets, slowing Cuse in transition and connecting on 3s against that zone will be keys against this Syracuse team that’s only lost twice this year.

NEW YORK – The dialogue and the punches have been dissected now to almost every syllable and twitch. Everyone knows exactly what happened in the Dec. 10 brawl between Cincinnati and Xavier, knows every inappropriate word, every horrible action.

What everyone forgets: Xavier was right about one thing.

Remember, it all started because the Musketeers belittled the Bearcats for their lack of toughness, and while Cincinnati might have showed its street grit in the late-game melee, it showed its lack of basketball fortitude in the 23-point loss.

“We were soft,’’ Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “We were soft early.’’

In perhaps the strangest and most ironic twist in this twisted basketball season, on the same day the Bearcats were criticized for being too hard and played too soft, Cincinnati found the perfect medium.

The Bearcats grew up after that game and grew into a team that has gone from losing to Presbyterian at home to beating Syracuse in the Big East tournament semifinal, 71-68.

It is nothing less than an astounding turnaround, a morality play lived large on the hardwood.

Plenty of people wrote Cincinnati off early; plenty more were disgusted with the Bearcats after the brawl.

And now? Now they’re winning converts by the day.

[+] EnlargeCashmere Wright
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IICashmere Wright celebrates after Cincinnati upended Big East top seed Syracuse.
Cincinnati did not beat Syracuse because it hit 8 of 10 3-pointers in the first half, though that certainly helped.

The Bearcats won because they outplayed a team that had but one stain on their résumé.

“Where we come from, we play to win,’’ Cronin said. “We’re not in it for the old college try. When this tournament starts next week, we’re quietly going to try and win it. We don’t let people outside our locker room define who we are as people or as a team. We try to define ourselves and make sure we’re giving our best effort. That’s what greatness is.’’

Syracuse defined the word for the entirety of this Big East season, rolling through the regular season with just one loss, and that with an asterisk, as the Orange played without Fab Melo.

Syracuse came to Madison Square Garden with its orange army, expecting a coronation.

Instead, the Orange head back home empty-handed.

There is no way to sugarcoat it. Syracuse did not play well. A team that rarely turns the ball over coughed it up 15 times, stymied surprisingly by Cincinnati’s zone.

Seniors Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine were ineffective, their zone even less so.

The Bearcats meticulously and carefully broke it down, dishing out 17 assists on 25 made baskets. Only a last-minute dash thanks to a full-court press even made this game close.

Instead of their first Big East crown since assistant coach Gerry McNamara’s epic run to the title, the Orange leave digging for a silver lining, insisting they will learn more from the loss than maybe all of their 31 wins combined.

“Look, we want to win the Big East, we want to win every game we play in,’’ Jardine said. “But we could have won the Big East and lost next week and everyone would have forgotten about it. If we lose in the NCAA tournament, nobody would remember if we had won the Big East tournament. That’s the truth.’’

Of course if you’re in the Big East tournament, you view its worth a little differently and the Bearcats are salivating at the chance to claim their first league title of any kind since 2004, when they were Conference USA champs.

“I remember when I came here, I just thought how much I’d love to have a chance to play in that championship game,’’ Yancy Gates said.

Gates, the principal offender in that brawl with Xavier, arrived on campus in the lean years, and though he helped take the Bearcats back to the NCAA tournament a year ago, his senior season appeared headed for disaster.

Before the fight, he was as tentative as his teammates. Cronin would walk into practice and Gates would groan, knowing what was coming.

“I’d be like, ‘Man, I wish he’d just stay home or let one of his assistants run practice,'’’ Gates said.

That’s because Cronin was trying to conjure up something that only the Bearcats could find in themselves -- how to be tough. It took a toll on everybody. The players were demoralized, Cronin exhausted.

“This hasn’t been an easy year coaching,’’ Cronin said. “I’d tell them, ‘C’mon guys, I can’t do this every day. I want to go home and spend time with my daughter.’ They didn’t believe in themselves.’’

And then somewhere after Xavier called them out, humiliated them on the court, and their coach called them out in a postgame press conference, things changed.

The Bearcats won 10 of their next 11 and came to New York having won seven of their final nine.

Against Syracuse, UC sprinted out to a stunning 17-point lead, the Big East leader in 3-pointers made putting on nothing less than a shooting clinic early.

In between the horrible day in early December and this week, the narrative on Cincinnati has changed entirely. After its double-overtime win against Georgetown, a comeback from 11 points down, the Bearcats were lauded for their pluck, grit and yes, their character.

“We heard people saying all of that about us on television,’’ Gates said. “That’s the kind of team we’ve become.’’

Casting our ballots: Big East

February, 29, 2012
Editor’s Note: To see our expert picks for each of the nation’s 12 top conferences, click here. To cast your vote in these races, visit SportsNation.

A quick look at the player and coach of the year races in the Big East:

Player of the year

Syracuse is far and away the best team in the Big East Conference.

Which is great when it comes to winning games, but a real problem when you’re trying to sort out player of the year trophies.

Usually you can at least find one obvious candidate from the best team in the conference. With the Orange, that’s impossible. Together they are unbeatable, but individually they almost cancel one another out. Is Scoop Jardine more valuable than Kris Joseph? Does Joseph do more than Fab Melo? How about Dion Waiters, the guy who comes off the bench to rank second on the team in scoring?

[+] EnlargeJohnson-Odom
Howard Smith/US PresswireMarquette's Darius Johnson-Odom's 18.4 points per game could earn him player of the year honors in the Big East.
All four will get and deserve votes but Syracuse is truly a sum-of-its-parts squad, one where every piece is critical but none more than the others. Someone on this team could win Big East POY -- and if we were voting, we’d lean Waiters -- but it’s not likely.

So who are the obvious candidates? There are two front-runners – Marquette’s Darius Johnson-Odom and West Virginia’s Kevin Jones.

Johnson-Odom has been terrific for a team that has been rock steady all year. Second in the Big East (behind Jones) in scoring, he averages 18.4 points per game. He’s scored in double figures in every game he’s played in save one -- suspended for the first half against West Virginia, he had nine.

Jones, in the meantime, had to be great for coach Bob Huggins’ young team to survive -- and the senior forward has been great. Along with leading the league in scoring and rebounding (20 points and 11 boards), he’s put up 18 double-doubles this season.

Some other long shots to consider: Marquette's Jae Crowder, Notre Dame’s Jack Cooley, Georgetown’s Jason Clark and Seton Hall’s Herb Pope. St. John’s freshmen D’Angelo Harrison and Moe Harkless have been terrific but there’s another newcomer award for them.

It’s a tough pick between the two favorites and I waffle daily but I’d probably lean Johnson-Odom because he has not only been sensational, his team has been, too.

Coach of the year

Interesting test case here -- do you reward the guy who has steered the loaded roster to near perfection or do you celebrate coaches who have had surprising success?

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Mark Konezny/US PresswireJim Boeheim has coached Syracuse to near perfection. But does he deserve to be the Big East coach of the year?
Jim Boeheim is one trip to South Bend away from perfection, achieving such rarefied air despite dealing with the fallout from the Bernie Fine scandal in December. Outsiders might argue that a kindergartener could coach a team with so much depth and talent. What looks easy, though, isn’t always. Managing a team -- especially in this day and age, when premier players come in with premier egos -- is not easy.

And Boeheim hasn’t steered a team to near perfection in any old league. He’s done it in the Big East.

Mike Brey and John Thompson III, meantime, took the opposite run to success. Neither is supposed to be here.

The Irish were picked ninth in the league, and that was before Tim Abromaitis blew out his knee. After that? No one figured Brey’s team to be of any consequence.

But Brey, who memorably retooled his team two years ago after Luke Harangody’s injury, has done it again. Notre Dame is 12-5 in the league, vying for a top-four finish. Brey, who won coach of the year honors last year, has imbued his team with confidence, handing over the keys to the sophomore backcourt of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, and letting them run the show.

Thompson’s year at Georgetown has been equally impressive and equally surprising. The Hoyas were picked 10th in the preseason coaches’ poll after losing Chris Wright and Austin Freeman to graduation.

Instead, Georgetown is knotted with Notre Dame at 12-5. Henry Sims has been an eye-opener, the ideal point-center for the Hoyas’ Princeton style, and Otto Porter is arguably among the top freshmen in the conference.

Outsider choices: Mike Dunlap and Stan Heath. Dunlap is supposed to be an assistant, helping Steve Lavin. Instead, while Lavin recuperates from prostate cancer surgery, Dunlap has been running the show at St. John's, and running it with a roster stuffed to the gills with freshmen. Heath, meantime, has pulled himself off the hot seat and the Bulls into the conversation, taking South Florida to its best finish since joining the Big East.

This is another can’t-go-wrong choice. And hey, could you argue with Marquette's Buzz Williams winning it too? Not me.

My pick: Boeheim. The name of the game is winning, and no one in the league has done that better this year than the Syracuse coach.

Highlights: Syracuse 71, UConn 69

February, 25, 2012
Kris Joseph scores 21 to lead No. 2 Syracuse to a 71-69 victory over Connecticut, clinching the Big East regular-season title for the Orange.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Syracuse has some glaring weaknesses.

The Orange are not a great rebounding team and give up way too many second chances on the defensive glass. They're not a deadly outside shooting team. They don't have a bona fide superstar who can take over in late-game situations.

All of those flaws were laid out for the world to see Monday night against Louisville, the team that has exploited Syracuse's liabilities more than any other the past few years.

Yet here's the undeniable good news for the nation's second-ranked team. The Orange found a way to trudge through a defensive morass and pull out the 52-51 victory -- their 26th win in 27 tries this season -- against one of the hottest clubs in the Big East.

[+] EnlargeJames Southerland
AP Photo/Timothy D. EasleyJames Southerland contributed crucial points and minutes off the bench in Syracuse's one-point win over Louisville.
"We really didn't play well, especially from the guard position," senior point guard Scoop Jardine said. "We didn't score the ball like we usually do. But we fought all game, on the road against a tough Big East team that really has had our number. And that speaks highly of our team."

Much like last week's 64-61 overtime win against Georgetown, Syracuse struggled to make shots. Rick Pitino's matchup zone caused confusion just as it had in Louisville's seven-game winning streak in this series dating back to 2006. The Orange connected on just 34.4 percent from the field and went 1-for-15 from the 3-point arc, its second-worst showing from long range in the past 15 seasons.

Kris Joseph bailed his team out against Georgetown, scoring 29 points and drilling six 3s. But on Monday, Joseph picked up his fourth foul early in the second half and wasn't much of a factor with just two field goals. Jardine, who had 21 points in a hot shooting day over the weekend versus Connecticut, was 0-for-8 from the floor and didn't score.

"Normally, when your two best players are struggling in college basketball you can't win, at home or especially on the road," coach Jim Boeheim said. "And they both struggled mightily tonight."

Boeheim, though, has arguably the deepest well of talent in the country to draw from, and that played a key role Monday. The Syracuse bench scored as many points (26) as the starters, led by 13 from C.J. Fair, who scored the game-winner. It's that depth that makes the Orange dangerous, especially when guys like James Southerland and Baye Keita -- the eighth and ninth men Boeheim called upon Monday -- can contribute six crucial points down the stretch when every basket is precious.

"We've got a lot of guys, and everybody believes in each other," sixth man Dion Waiters said. "We're not just a one-man show."

That depth also gives Boeheim the versatility to play different styles. This month alone, Syracuse has won track meets against St. John's and Connecticut by scoring 95 and 85 points, respectively. And they've won hand-to-hand combats versus Georgetown and Louisville.

On Monday, with the outside shot not falling, the Orange took advantage of their length inside by getting to the rim as often as possible. Of their 21 field goals, 18 were either layups or dunks. That became even more pronounced in the second half, when their only points outside the paint or the free throw line came on an eight-foot jumper by Brandon Triche.

The game was really won, however, on the defensive end. Louisville is deeply flawed offensively itself, especially when point guard Peyton Siva can't penetrate and create open looks. After a hot start in which he was directly or indirectly responsible for his team's first 13 points, Siva got saddled with his third foul before halftime. Syracuse's big men started staying at home defensively when he drove to the rim, and Siva finished with more turnovers (five) than assists (four). The Cardinals had a chance to take the lead in the final five seconds, but Siva's pass was intercepted by Waiters after he got cut off along the baseline.

The Orange also locked onto Louisville's Kyle Kuric, who had averaged 22.5 points in the teams' last two meetings. Kuric went just 1-for-8 from the field with a lone 3-point make. The Cardinals were held scoreless for the final 3:38 after a 15-2 run had put them up by five and worked the home crowd into a lather.

"I'm telling you, we really gutted this one out," Jardine said. "They didn't make many shots, but we got the guys we wanted to shoot it."

Boeheim knows that these types of slogs will pop up again during the NCAA tournament. He also knows that if Louisville had made one more play in the final minutes, we'd be sounding much louder alarm bells about Syracuse's holes, like the 18 second-chance points it surrendered thanks to poor rebounding execution.

Yet the Orange -- who have a very real chance of heading into the Big East tournament at 30-1 -- displayed admirable grit and poise in a challenging environment on Monday night. Their very real weaknesses might not be enough to offset their many strengths.

"We could have hit a few more shots and we definitely could have crashed the boards a bit better," Triche said. "We could have done a lot of things better tonight. But to win a game like this, going down to the last shot, that's definitely something we're going to use for March."

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Quick thoughts from the Yum! Center, where No. 2 Syracuse survived on the road against No. 18 Louisville 52-51 on Monday night:

Overview: If you like high-scoring games and lots of easy baskets, this game was not for you. Points were like precious gems most of the night and neither team led by more than eight points. Both teams shot less than 35 percent for the game and bricked 3-pointers left and right. But Syracuse showed a lot of poise in finally getting over the hump against Louisville, which had beaten the Orange seven straight times dating back to 2006.

Turning point: Louisville reeled off a 15-2 run to go ahead by five points with fewer than four minutes left. Syracuse looked rattled during the run, especially when Kris Joseph dropped the ball out of bounds with no one around him. But the Orange chipped away at the lead on the strength of their defense, holding the Cardinals scoreless over the final 3:39. C.J. Fair's layup with just over two minutes left put Syracuse back ahead 52-51, and neither team would score again. Peyton Siva turned the ball over in the final six seconds while trying to create something off a drive, and Louisville couldn't get off a shot attempt after getting the ball back with 1.1 seconds left.

Star of the game: Fair was big off the bench for Jim Boeheim, scoring a team high 13 points and adding five rebounds. And his go-ahead basket was the last field goal of the game. Special mention goes to Louisville freshman Chane Behanan, who led all scorers with 16 points to go along with nine rebounds.

Stat of the game: Of Syracuse's 21 baskets, 18 were layups or dunks. The Orange were just 1-of-15 on 3-point shots, missing all six second-half attempts. According to ESPN Stats & Info, it was the program’s second-worst performance from long range in the past 15 years. But the Orange converted 9 of 11 free throws, while Louisville was just 12-of-21 from the foul line.

What the win means for Syracuse: The Orange (26-1, 13-1) tightened their grip on first place in the Big East by winning what looked like their toughest remaining regular-season game. They won't play another ranked team until the March 3 finale against these same Cardinals in the Carrier Dome, if Louisville hangs around the Top 25 that long. Despite the win, concerns about Syracuse's outside shooting and defensive rebounding remain as both areas were exposed on Monday.

What the loss means for Louisville: The Cardinals (20-6, 8-5) saw their six-game winning streak snapped and got a measuring stick as they played their first ranked team since a Jan. 16 loss at Marquette. They slide back into the middle of the pack in the Big East standings. Louisville remains limited offensively, especially when Siva -- who was saddled with early foul trouble and committed too many turnovers -- is not at his best.

Up next: Both teams go on the road this weekend but should be heavily favored, as Louisville heads to DePaul on Saturday and Syracuse visits Rutgers on Sunday.

Player Perspective: Darius Johnson-Odom

January, 13, 2012
West Virginia’s Kevin Jones and Seton Hall’s Herb Pope have become double-double machines, and at Syracuse, players such as Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine and Dion Waiters have become the face of college basketball’s best team.

Through it all Darius Johnson-Odom keeps making baskets.

Johnson-Odom -- Marquette’s senior guard -- hasn’t received the national hype and hoopla of some of his conference counterparts. But Big East coaches will tell you the 6-foot-2 Johnson-Odom is as dangerous as any player in the league -- mainly because of his ability to hit big shots in crunch time.

I caught up with Johnson-Odom following his 20-point, six-assist performance in Marquette’s 83-64 victory over St. John’s on Wednesday. He’s averaging 18.1 points on the season. Marquette hosts Pittsburgh on Saturday.

[+] EnlargeJohnson-Odom
Howard Smith/US Presswire Darius Johnson-Odom has become one of the most respected players in the Big East.
King: For whatever reason, you don’t receive nearly as much praise for your accomplishments as some of your competitors. Does that bother you, and do you feel like you can hold your own against any guard in the country?

Johnson-Odom: There’s no question in my mind I can. But I don’t mind the lack of attention or not being looked at as the highest guy. All I want to do is get my team wins and that’s what I try to do.

King: You and Jimmy Butler formed such a good tandem last season. What’s life been like without him? What do you miss the most?

Johnson-Odom: Jimmy has been missed. He was a great defender. He did all the little things that helped us win games. That’s what we all miss about Jimmy. He was a great leader. He led in many ways.

King: Marquette started off 10-0 this season before losing four times in six games. What was the reason for the lull?

Johnson-Odom: Every team hits a few bumps in the road. Our main focus right now is just playing two halves as hard as possible. Once we get that down, it’s going to be hard for teams to beat us.

King: In the long run, how much better will you be because of the losses?

Johnson-Odom: I think you can take a lot of positives from it. When we watch film, a lot of guys can see themselves not doing what they’re supposed to be doing. By the time we get out to practice, we know what we have to correct.

We’ve been doing extra shooting and individual workouts. We do a lot of stuff that pertains not just to the other teams, but to us, as well. We have to be good at what we do and not just worry about the opponent. It’s really helped us improve our focus.

King: You’re in your third season as a Big East starter. Who are the three best players you’ve faced in your career?

Johnson-Odom: One guy I’ve always respected is Preston Knowles of Louisville. He’s a good player. He’s very hard to guard off screens. He plays hard every possession. (Former Villanova guard) Corey Fisher is another guy I loved playing against. Me and Corey are good friends off the court. But we brought the best out of each other on the court. The other guy I like playing against is Ashton Gibbs at Pittsburgh. He’s improved so much since his sophomore year.

King: How good is it or the Big East that teams such as Rutgers and Seton Hall are playing well after struggling so much in recent years?

Johnson-Odom: It’s great for the league. Those schools aren’t backing down from anyone. They’re playing hard against all the top teams. Rutgers is playing well at home, on the road, everywhere. They’re doing really, really well.

King: Buzz Williams seems like he’s be a lot of fun to play for. Any funny stories about him?

Johnson-Odom: Buzz has a lot of energy and charisma. He shows it in his coaching and the way he tries to explain things to you. Most of us try not to laugh at the time, but it ends up coming out anyway. He’s a good coach, a good person, a great guy to be around. He always has a great pulse on his guys. That’s why people love playing for him.

King: If you had a day off and could go anywhere in the world, where would you go and what would you do?

Johnson-Odom: I’d probably go get some shots up in a nice place, probably somewhere like L.A., where I could go walk the beach or something.

King: You’d still go to the gym and shoot on your vacation?

Johnson-Odom: There are no days off. I don’t believe in that.

Syracuse shows off its depth once more

January, 5, 2012

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Because of its bench, Syracuse can separate itself from nearly every team in the country.

And calling it a bench may be a disservice. There are no backups. No scrubs. This is a team that goes nine deep without a hiccup.

Drop-off? None at all.

“Their bench is ridiculous,’’ Providence coach Ed Cooley said after the Friars lost 87-73 to the top-ranked Orange in a game it led by five points seven minutes into the first half and was within two possessions in the second.

“They’ve got pros coming off the bench. They’ve got a great team. They’ve got starters off the bench, like [Dion] Waiters. He may be one of the best players in the country. They’ve got guys who didn’t play who would start for us. I like their team. I love them. I just don’t coach them.’’

Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim does. And it's possible he has never had a rotation quite like this one.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Stew Milne/US PresswireJim Boeheim, with Kris Joseph, left, can't say enough about how deep his Syracuse squad is.
Sure, Boeheim has coached a number of NBA all-stars. And he’s had teams with multiple pros. But in his 36 seasons, he said he hasn’t had a team that there was no need to keep just one or two players on the court at all times.

Center Fab Melo may be the only player who is somewhat irreplaceable without a comparable backup. But on any given night, Boeheim won’t hesitate going with any of the other eight -- forwards Rakeem Christmas, Kris Joseph, C.J. Fair and tweeners James Southerland and Michael Carter-Williams and then guards Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Waiters.

Six of the nine players scored in double figures Wednesday night, and every time you looked up it seemed like someone else was contributing.

“I’ve said this about this team,’’ Boeheim said. “We don’t have the one or two guys that you have to leave in the game the whole game that are that much better than six, seven or eight. When we had Derrick Coleman we had good players at seven and eight, but not ones that beat them in practice.’’

Boeheim said coaches prop up their bench players, but “there’s no question that C.J. Fair and Dion Waiters could start for anybody, just about. People in Syracuse think they should be starting, and as soon as we lose a game they’ll be telling me that.’’

Carter-Williams scored five points in four minutes against the Friars and could have easily demanded more time. Yet, Triche got hot and made four 3-pointers and wasn’t about to come out. Boeheim said he wants Carter-Williams to be irked that he didn’t get more time.

“I’m going to go with veterans until they get beat,’’ Boeheim said.

When will that be for the 16-0 Orange? Well, the Big East road isn’t all too bumpy in the near future and it might not come until a late-January road trip to Cincinnati. The two toughest road games are in February at Louisville and Connecticut.

The beauty of this team is the selfless play from everyone involved. The locker-room mojo so far has been smooth.

“I’ve never been on a team with subs like this,’’ Waiters said. “It’s crazy. We continue to get better and make each other better in practice every day. We’ve got some of the best guards in the country.’’

Jardine said the Syracuse team of two seasons ago with Wesley Johnson and Andy Rautins had depth. But nothing compared to this squad.

North Carolina and Kentucky have plenty of depth as well. And those two teams have more NBA-level players. But it appears Syracuse has perhaps more balance from one through nine, which would sure seem to indicate the Orange will be in this thing for the long haul.

“We want to win a national championship, that’s our goal,’’ Jardine said. “That’s our focus. And we’ve got a great chance to do that.’’

Here's what we learned on Saturday

December, 17, 2011

Saturday’s slate of games featured some surprising finishes. Teams were exposed. Others were discovered.

It was a tutorial on the unpredictable ebb and flow of the college basketball scene this time of year. Here are a few things I learned:

No. 1 Syracuse 88, North Carolina State 72

What we learned: The Orange aren’t just deep -- they're really good

Syracuse has been praised as one of the deepest teams in the country. The Big East power possesses a talented backup at every position. Sometimes, however, the “depth” tag suggests a team lacks individual talent. That’s not the case with the Orange. North Carolina State started strong but Syracuse didn’t panic. It just turned to its stars. Dion Waiters (career-high 22 points), Scoop Jardine (16 points) and Kris Joseph (21 points) led an SU squad that hit 56.5 percent of its shots. North Carolina State was up early and then -- Bam! -- the Orange snatched the game back. Even with a target on their backs as America’s new No. 1 team and a highly publicized investigation of a former assistant coach, they continue to operate like a team without any distractions. Cuse has survived every Bernie Fine development and overcome the obstacles on the floor. Can’t get overly excited quite yet about a team that just played its first road game, but the Orange seem to have it all right now.

No. 13 Florida 84, No. 22 Texas A&M 64

What we learned: Florida’s backcourt is a matchup nightmare for opposing teams

Well, the Aggies don’t belong anywhere near the top 25, judging by Saturday’s lopsided loss to the Gators. They can’t score. The Big 12’s worst scoring offense and worst free throw-shooting team couldn’t find the buckets to compete with Florida. Give UF credit for attacking early (opened the game on an 18-2 run), putting its potent offense to work and getting to the free throw line (30 attempts). The Gators are going to have trouble against bigger teams given their size disparity, but as Saturday’s game proved, opposing teams continue to have problems matching up against a team with their backcourt depth (three guards scored 16 or more, led by Kenny Boynton’s 22 points and his six 3-pointers). One question remains, though. Patric Young took two shots. You have to wonder whether he’ll become a more consistent part of Florida’s offense in SEC play. One thing is clear: When this team gets going, it’s a hard one to stop. There are still defensive concerns, but the Gators are going to compete in the SEC if they continue to produce this level of offense.

No. 7 Baylor 86, BYU 83

What we learned: Perry Jones can lead Baylor to a national championship

Baylor’s NCAA title hopes will be directly linked to its identity outside of Waco. The Bears were 1-3 away from their home floor during the nonconference portion of last season’s schedule. Those road woes followed the Bears into the Big 12 season. In a gritty game Saturday against a BYU squad that’s always tough on its home floor, Perry Jones III scored a career-high 28 points and played with the heart that’s expected of a star. After suffering a late knee injury, Jones checked back into the game and scored on a putback with 20 seconds to play that capped the win. Pierre Jackson blocked Brandon Davies’ 3-point attempt at the buzzer. BYU held a 13-point lead in the first half, but Jones kept the Bears alive in a hostile environment. He’s NBA-lottery good. We knew that before Saturday’s game, but since his return from an NCAA-mandated suspension at the start of the season, he’s looked like an NCAA championship-caliber leader, too.

Gonzaga 71, Arizona 60

[+] EnlargeElias Harris
AP Photo/Kevin P. CaseyGonzaga rode Elias Harris' 25 points to victory over Arizona.
What we learned: Gonzaga is not discouraged by early struggles, but Arizona might be

This was a significant game for a pair of teams that had dropped from the rankings in recent weeks as they failed to meet preseason projections. Both needed this game in Seattle. Gonzaga played like it understood the stakes. Arizona did not. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 14-0 lead to start the game, and Zona spent the rest of the contest trying to close the gap. But that early onslaught from Gonzaga set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. The Zags held off Arizona’s late charge that cut the deficit to 62-56 with 2:03 to play. The Wildcats’ leading scorer, Solomon Hill, went 1-for-7 and finished with six points, his second single-digit effort in three games. The fall continues for Arizona, an Elite Eight team last season but one that has lost four of its past seven games. Give Gonzaga credit, though. The Zags seemed motivated and focused, despite suffering their recent ups and downs. Saturday’s version of Elias Harris (25 points) should help Gonzaga in what should be an excellent WCC race with BYU and Saint Mary's. Hopefully, the 2-for-11 player who showed up for last weekend’s loss to Michigan State never returns.

UNLV 64, No. 19 Illinois 48

What we learned: UNLV is legit

With about 41 seconds to play in this game, Illinois' D.J. Richardson drove right in and went up for a dunk that wouldn’t have affected the outcome. But Quintrell Thomas swatted the shot like it mattered. Thomas and Mike Moser gave UNLV a combined 30 points with leading scorer Chace Stanback (2 points) struggling, as UNLV strolled into Chicago and locked up an Illinois team that came in at 10-0. The Runnin’ Rebels now have dropped a pair of undefeated, nationally ranked squads (North Carolina, Illinois), and their only two losses came against quality opponents on the road (Wichita State, Wisconsin). This Mountain West standout is legit. The Rebels can clamp down defensively. Illinois went 16-of-63 from the field (7-of-25 from the 3-point line). Surprisingly, Illinois didn’t feed big man Meyers Leonard (3-of-8) enough in the second half. During some stretches, Leonard’s teammates just missed him and settled for bad shots. Other times, however, Leonard couldn’t breathe with UNLV defenders swarming him.

No. 4 Louisville 95, Memphis 87

What we learned: Josh Pastner is still trying to figure out this team

Let’s start with giving Louisville credit. The Cardinals held off Memphis’ relentless pursuit, after watching their 13-point second-half lead become a 58-55 deficit. Behind Russ Smith’s career highs of 24 points and seven steals, Louisville pulled off a solid home win. But it also was another game in which Memphis baffled observers with its inefficient use of its immense talent. Will Barton is special (28 points, 16 boards), and he’s surrounded by a variety of highly skilled athletes. But that hasn’t been enough for the Tigers. Their four losses have come against quality opponents, but at what point will this group get over the hump? When will it stop playing in spurts and begin improving shot selection in tight stretches? Those are all key questions for Pastner going forward. He has some talented players on his roster. But getting all that talent to work together is still a challenge.

More observations from Saturday:

* No. 2 Ohio State stayed strong when Jared Sullinger left Saturday’s 74-66 victory over South Carolina with a foot injury, but you have to wonder whether the sophomore’s ailments will hamper him and the program the rest of the way.

* With Cody Zeller, who scored 21 points in Saturday’s 69-58 win over Notre Dame in Indianapolis, the No. 20 Hoosiers can compete for the Big Ten title.

* Both Mississippi State and Detroit proved they’re legitimate conference contenders during the Bulldogs’ 80-75 victory over the Titans. MSU is 11-1 now, while the return of center Eli Holman (12 points, 9 rebounds) increases Detroit’s potential of winning a Horizon League title.

* The Missouri Valley race will be the most competitive in the country. Indiana State’s 61-55 win at No. 25 Vanderbilt was just a reminder of the conference’s parity and talent. The Sycamores will compete with Creighton, Northern Iowa, Wichita State and Missouri State in what should be a heck of a two months in the Valley.

* J'Covan Brown continues to keep 9-2 Texas afloat in the Big 12’s fringe contender conversations. He scored 23 points in a nice 77-65 victory over Temple.

* A game-winning tip-in with a second to play by Butler’s Andrew Smith helped the Bulldogs snap a three-game losing skid with a 67-65 win over Purdue. The Big Ten is really big this season, and Purdue lacks a consistent interior presence. That will create a variety of issues for the Boilermakers in conference play.