College Basketball Nation: Syracuse Orange

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A Big East meeting was assembled here this weekend, bringing back the band for one final set.

Tom Odjakjian, the league’s vice president, is here.

Ditto John Paquette, the conference’s longtime public-relations man.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Mark Konezny/USA TODAY SportsCoach Jim Boeheim's third-seeded Syracuse squad went 14-4 in its first season in the ACC.
Jim Boeheim and Jay Wright will coach in games on Saturday. Jim Calhoun won’t coach, but he’s here, surreptitiously stealing everyone else’s thunder with news that maybe he wouldn’t mind trying this coaching thing again.

Of course, Wright and Paquette are the only ones still in the Big East. The rest are ex-employees, reshuffled in the dissolution and recreation of the league.

But they’re all here, Odjakjian and Calhoun with UConn and the American Athletic Conference, Boeheim with the ACC -- a strange bedfellow of a reunion party.

So is Dayton, survivor of the Atlantic 10 reorganization that was supposedly going to doom the league to the basketball basement.

Which begs a simple question: Did any of it matter? The handwringing, the fretting, the shouting into the wind about the end of loyalty and the beginning of the end of college athletics?

It all made perfect sense for football, which is why it all happened, but did it really make the dire impact on basketball that everyone suspected?

Those four teams are all wearing different logos on the back of their uniforms now, but they’re all still here, in the NCAA tournament, the ultimate barometer of a team’s success.

No. 3 seed Syracuse will meet No. 11 seed Dayton in one third-round game, with No. 2 seed Villanova and No. 7 seed UConn in the other.

"It’s a little different in basketball," Boeheim said. "There are enough players now where everybody is able to be good, so you can survive as a basketball team no matter what conference. Where it matters is for the athletic department and for football, but basketball is different."

It’s a message certainly that is delivered with emphasis at this time of year, when upsets are commonplace. On Friday, one of the most storied programs of all time lost to a team that hadn’t been in the NCAA tournament since 1985. And No. 14 seed Mercer didn’t beat No. 3 seed Duke with a miracle shot; the Bears mostly dominated the game.

The Atlantic Sun now moves on to the third round for the second season in a row; the Blue Devils of the mighty ACC head home after one game for the second time in three seasons.

Which would be akin to Georgia State and the Sun Belt beating Alabama and the SEC in football.

Impossible in one sport, unlikely but possible in another.

Because, in part, of what Boeheim said. You only need five players in hoops, the right five to be good.

But in basketball, you can also control your own destiny a little more. A 30-plus game schedule offers a few more opportunities than 12.

So teams in lesser leagues can beef up their chances by scheduling well.

"It matters more for football," Boeheim said. "You always need a place for football. For basketball, it’s good for the stability. You need stability, but you can make it. Of course, if a league keeps losing teams, it’s to be determined."

That, of course, is the rub. Conference stability takes the guessing out of the equation, as UConn might find out soon. The Huskies, the last pick in conference dodgeball, have managed to stay afloat in the new American, but the future is less than certain. Louisville moves on to the ACC next season, leaving UConn, Memphis, Cincinnati and SMU to keep things afloat.

The league this season felt the sting of its top-heavy and bottom-light rankings. The Mustangs were left out of the NCAA field, Louisville docked with a 4-seed.

Meantime the A-10, more established, pushed six into the tourney -- even if Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski didn’t agree.

A good league does buoy a team’s schedule strength. Maybe lessens the need for a murderer’s row nonconference schedule, too.

"We’re building a program," Dayton coach Archie Miller said. "This is where we want to be, and we have to build around our league. I think, right now, the great thing is we can build a schedule around an at-large bid league."

No one, of course, did it better than the old Big East, using its brand-name teams and its brand-name conference to gobble up at-large bids.

The conference mattered because it had history and tradition but mostly because it always retained its relevance.

“There’s just something very special about the Big East," Wright said. "So conference means a lot when it comes to the Big East, the old Big East."

But the Big East died and was reborn, and the world didn’t crumble. Teams that stuck around and teams that moved on are still tasting success, the disastrous consequences turning out not to be so disastrous after all.

It’s nice that all those folks are here. They can talk about the old days, rehash the "30 for 30" "Requiem for the Big East" documentary, but that’s about all there’s left to do.

Boeheim, ever the romantic, probably put it the best.

"You’ve got to move on," Boeheim said. "It’s like, you don’t ask questions about someone’s ex-wife, do you? There’s a good reason for that. You can only get in trouble with answering that question if you’re married again."

Things change.

And we all live to talk about it.

BPI Talk: Projecting championship week

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
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Championship Week can be unpredictable as teams try to improve their NCAA tournament résumés, whether it’s to vie for a No. 1 seed or just to get into the field.

ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) measures how well each team performs based on game result, margin, pace of game, location, opponent strength and the absence of any key players.


Using BPI, we are able to project the chances for each team to win its major conference tournament. The probabilities take into account the matchups in each bracket based on each team’s BPI. The team with the best BPI isn’t necessarily always the favorite if that team has much tougher matchups than other teams in the tournament.

According to BPI, the Arizona Wildcats have the best chance of any team in one of the seven major conferences (American, ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) to win its tournament. They have a 63 percent chance of winning the Pac-12 tournament.

Pac-12
Arizona has more than a six times better chance of winning the Pac-12 tournament than any other team. The UCLA Bruins have the second-best chance at 10 percent.

Pac-12 best chances: Arizona 63 percent, UCLA 10 percent, Oregon 10 percent, Arizona State 5 percent, Stanford 4 percent

SEC
The Florida Gators are the prohibitive favorites in the SEC tournament with a 57 percent chance to win it. The Kentucky Wildcats (25 percent) are the only other SEC team with better than a 7 percent chance. The No. 9 seed Missouri Tigers have a slightly better chance to win the SEC tournament than the No. 3 seed Georgia Bulldogs.

SEC best chances: Florida 57 percent, Kentucky 25 percent, Tennessee 7 percent, Arkansas 3 percent, Missouri 2 percent

American & Big East
The Louisville Cardinals (American) and Villanova Wildcats (Big East) are both close to 50 percent in terms of their chances of winning their respective conference tournaments.

The Memphis Tigers have an edge playing on their home court in the American Tournament, but they still have a significantly worse chance than Louisville and Cincinnati. Memphis does, however, have a greater probability of winning the tournament than higher-seeded teams Southern Methodist and Connecticut. With its home-court advantage, Memphis would be a favorite against any team in the tournament other than Louisville.

American best chances: Louisville 49 percent, Cincinnati 18 percent, Memphis 14 percent, SMU 12 percent, Connecticut 8 percent

No team other than Villanova or Creighton has better than a 6 percent chance to win the Big East tournament. There’s a 44 percent chance that Villanova and Creighton meet in the Big East championship game.

Big East best chances: Villanova 48 percent, Creighton 31 percent, Xavier 6 percent, St. John’s 6 percent, Providence 4 percent

ACC
Perhaps the most interesting conference tournament is the ACC, where the No. 3 seed Duke Blue Devils are the favorites at 27 percent. The No. 1 seed Virginia Cavaliers (25 percent) and No. 2 Syracuse Orange (23 percent) are close behind.

ACC best chances: Duke 27 percent, Virginia 25 percent, Syracuse 23 percent, Pittsburgh 12 percent, North Carolina 7 percent

Big Ten
Another interesting conference tournament is the Big Ten, where four teams have between a 17 percent and a 26 percent chance of winning the tournament. The No. 2 seed Wisconsin Badgers are the favorites at 26 percent, while the No. 1 seed Michigan Wolverines are only the third favorites.

Big Ten best chances: Wisconsin 26 percent, Ohio State 19 percent, Michigan 19 percent, Michigan State 17 percent, Iowa 11 percent

Big 12
The Kansas Jayhawks have a 37 percent chance to win the Big 12 tournament, but their path isn’t easy. They could face the teams with the fourth- and second-best chances of winning the tournament in the quarterfinals and semifinals.

The No. 8 seed Oklahoma State Cowboys, with a 10 percent chance of winning it, could face Kansas in the quarterfinals. The No. 4 seed Iowa State Cyclones, with an 18 percent chance, could face Kansas in the semifinals. Both teams have a 35 percent chance of beating Kansas, according to BPI.

Big 12 best chances: Kansas 37 percent, Iowa State 18 percent, Oklahoma 16 percent, Oklahoma State 10 percent, Baylor 6 percent

Virginia locks up ACC with win over Orange

March, 1, 2014
Mar 1
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Rich Barnes/Getty ImagesVirginia clinched the regular-season ACC title with a win over Syracuse on Saturday.
The Virginia Cavaliers locked up their first outright ACC regular-season championship since the 1980-81 season with its 75-56 win over the fourth-ranked Syracuse. It’s just the second outright regular-season ACC championship for the Cavaliers in school history.

Virginia trailed by one at the half, but outscored Syracuse 48-28 in the second half. Virginia especially pulled away over the final 13:54, outscoring the Orange 35-16. In that span, the Cavaliers held Syracuse to 4-22 shooting from the field, 0-10 from 3-point range.

Virginia is known for their defensive prowess, it entered the game allowing a Division I-best 54.7 points per game, but it was an adjustment on the offensive end that spurred the Cavaliers to this victory.

In the first half, Virginia had problems scoring from outside, but excelled when pounding the ball inside. The Cavaliers went 10-19 from the paint in the first half, with 68 percent of their field goal attempts coming from the paint.

However, in that first half, Virginia struggled against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense when they were unable to get inside. On possessions that didn’t include a touch in the paint against the zone, Virginia scored just five points on 2-for-9 shooting.

Syracuse responded by clogging the paint defensively in the second half, but Virginia responded by moving their offense outside, with 24 second-half points on possessions without a touch in the paint against the zone, including six 3-pointers.

Unlike Virginia, the Orange could not score from outside, leading to the loss. Syracuse shot just 24 percent from outside the paint in the game, including under 18 percent in the second half. The Orange missed their final 13 shots from outside the paint.

The Orange defense also forced just a single turnover in the second half, after forcing five in the first half.

Although unlikely to move into discussion for a No. 1 seed based on Saturday’s win alone, Virginia has made an argument for being ranked among the top-four team entering the NCAA Tournament and to be picked to advance deep into brackets:

• Best BPI since Jan. 1
• 16-1 in last 17 games
• 7-4 vs teams in BPI top 50 (12-5 vs BPI top 100)
• No losses to team outside BPI top 60

Virginia will try to replicate the performance of the only other team in school history to win an outright regular-season ACC title. The 1980-81 squad, with Ralph Sampson on the roster, was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, before being eliminated in the Final Four by a James Worthy-led North Carolina team.

BPI Talk: Could UNC win it all?

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
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Is it possible that the North Carolina Tar Heels could win the national championship?

The Tar Heels have the best BPI since Feb. 1. In each of the previous two seasons, the team with the best BPI between Feb. 1 and Selection Sunday went on to win the national championship –- Kentucky in 2012 and Louisville last year.

UNC is one of four teams with five wins against the BPI top 25 this season. The others are Wisconsin (7), Michigan (5) and Duke (5).

The Tar Heels are the only team with three wins against the BPI top 15 this season, having defeated Kentucky, Louisville and Duke.

Blind résumés: Pick your No. 1 seed

Let’s play a game called “blind résumés.” Take a look at the graphic to the right with three candidates for a No. 1 seed. Which team would you select?

Team A has the No. 1 RPI and No. 3 BPI with 11 top-50 wins, 17 top-100 wins and no bad losses against a very tough schedule that ranked No. 1 in nonconference play.

Team B and Team C have comparable BPI and RPI ranks, significantly lower than Team A's. Team B has just three top-50 wins and seven top-100 wins but had a fairly tough nonconference schedule.

Team C has eight top-50 wins and 16 top-100 wins but has a bad loss and played a nonconference schedule that doesn’t even rank in the top 100.

It seems as if Team A is the obvious choice, right?

That doesn’t seem to be the case. Team A is the Kansas Jayhawks, a No. 2 seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology. Team B –- the Wichita State Shockers –- and Team C -– the Syracuse Orange –- are both No. 1 seeds.

If Syracuse and Wichita State both get No. 1 seeds after being ranked outside the top eight in RPI, it would be the first time since 2000 that two No. 1 seeds were ranked No. 9 or worse in RPI.

That year was the only year in the past 20 seasons in which a team ranked outside the top eight in RPI earned a No. 1 seed over the team with the No. 1 RPI. The reason? The Cincinnati Bearcats were No. 1 in RPI and lost Kenyon Martin for the season with a broken leg in the Conference USA tournament.

Is Oklahoma State’s résumé underrated?

The Oklahoma State Cowboys have had quite the turbulent season. After losing seven straight, they’ve rebounded by winning two straight since Marcus Smart returned from suspension.

With Smart out (from Feb. 9 to Feb. 21), the Cowboys ranked No. 133 in BPI.

With Smart playing (all other days this season), Oklahoma State is ranked No. 18 in BPI.

The Cowboys are right on the bubble, according to Lunardi.

Oklahoma State doesn’t have a single loss outside the BPI top 100. The Cowboys also have three top-50 wins and seven top-100 wins.

Their biggest flaw on their résumé is nine losses against the BPI top 50.

Of teams currently ranked in the BPI top 100, only three teams have more than nine top-50 losses: Maryland, Texas Tech and West Virginia. Maryland is the only other top-50 team with at least nine losses against the BPI top 50.

Despite all of the losses, the Cowboys are still ranked No. 20 in BPI, although they're No. 47 in RPI. Why? They have eight losses by six or fewer points, two of which were in overtime.

Two of Oklahoma State’s losses –- against Kansas and Iowa State by a combined three points –- rank as two of the top 15 BPI game scores among losses in college basketball this season. No other team has two losses with BPI game scores that high.

How Duke can beat the Syracuse zone

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
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When Duke and Syracuse met on Feb. 1, Duke's offensive efficiency was the highest of any team against Syracuse this season.

Despite the overtime loss, the Blue Devils executed exceptionally well against the Syracuse 2-3 zone.

How did Duke execute so well on offense? By getting the ball into the high post.

When Duke flashed a player in the high post in its zone offense, not including offensive rebound putbacks, the Blue Devils scored more than a point per play and shot 43 percent.

When they didn't flash someone in the high post in their zone offense, they shot 0-for-7 and scored just one point on eight plays.

High post touches are key
If there is a single factor that appeared to most affect Duke's offensive efficiency, it's whether or not they got a touch in the high post.

Getting the ball into the middle of the Syracuse zone, even if it's just to move the defense temporarily, seems to be half the battle.

Duke's offense was more than three times as efficient when it got a touch in the high post compared to when it didn't. The Blue Devils shot 55 percent on plays that included a high post touch and 16 percent without a touch.

Four different Duke players flashed in the high post throughout the game -- Amile Jefferson, Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood and Marshall Plumlee.

Amile Jefferson
Jefferson was the most prevalent high-post flasher against Syracuse, accounting for 53 percent (31-of-58) of Duke's plays that included a high post flasher.

Jefferson was aggressive in catching the ball in the high post, getting a touch on 68 percent of those plays. The Blue Devils shot 45 percent and scored 1.16 points per play when Jefferson was in the high post.

There was especially a huge difference in Duke's offense based on whether Jefferson got a touch when he was in the high post. The Duke offense was nearly four times as efficient when he got a touch compared to when he didn't. When Jefferson did get a touch, the Blue Devils shot 60 percent (12-of-20). When he didn't, they shot just 11 percent (1-of-9).

Marshall Plumlee
Plumlee was an x-factor in the high post. He had just seven plays there, but of the four players the Blue Devils flashed in the high post, they were most efficient with Plumlee. They shot 67 percent (4-of-6) on those plays.

Whether it was Jefferson or Plumlee in the high post, when they got a touch the Blue Devils shot 60 percent on those plays and scored more than 1.5 points per play.

Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood
Duke's zone offense was least efficient with Parker and Hood flashing in the high post, scoring less than a point per play. Combined, Duke shot 5-of-16 (31 percent) when Parker or Hood flashed and they got a high post touch on less than 50 percent of those plays.

Specifically, the Blue Devils were least efficient with Parker in the high post (0.56 points per play, 29 percent shooting), while Hood was the least effective in getting touches in the high post (36 percent of plays).

Inside BC’s shocker over No. 1 Syracuse

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
11:57
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AP Photo/Kevin RivoliTrevor Cooney (10) and Syracuse fell from the ranks of the unbeaten against an unlikely foe.

When the night started, ESPN's BPI gave Boston College just a 1.2% chance of going into Syracuse and knocking off the top-ranked Orange.

When it was all over, the Eagles had earned their 3rd-ever win over a No. 1 team and made plenty of other men's hoops history in the process.

Unlikely upset artists
How big was the upset? According to BPI, last season's biggest upset of a ranked team came when TCU topped No. 5 Kansas (4.5% chance) on Feb. 6.

Boston College's win probability (1.2%) was much smaller than that, and the Eagles' .240 winning percentage entering the game is the worst ever by a team to defeat the AP No. 1 in February or later.

In fact, the Eagles had lost 19 games entering their matchup with Syracuse -- the most ever by a team who defeated the AP No. 1 team. The previous record was 18 by UCLA, who at 9-18 defeated No. 1 Arizona on March 13, 2003.

As for Syracuse, the Orange become only the third No. 1 team with a record of 25-0 or better to suffer their first loss of the season at home to an unranked opponent. Massachusetts in 1996 (vs George Washington) and UCLA in 1969 (vs USC) were the others.

How did it happen? Syracuse shot a season-worst 32.3% from the field, and crunch-time hero Tyler Ennis didn't help either.

Ennis was 1 for 5 from the field when the score was within a possession with five minutes or less left in the 2nd half and overtime. He had previously been 8 for 10 from the field in those situations.

Unlikely road warriors
The location of this game alone makes it an historic win for Boston College.

Villanova (in 1990) was the only previous team to defeat a No. 1-ranked Syracuse team on its home floor, and the Eagles entered Wednesday's game with just one true road win this season (Jan. 11 at Virginia Tech).

Throw in the fact that Boston College was just 6-19 entering the game, and the Eagles become the 3rd team with a losing record to knock off the AP No. 1 on the road, and the first in nearly 60 years.

They join Georgia Tech in 1955 (defeated No. 1 Kentucky and DePaul in 1950 (defeated No. 1 St. John's).

Then again, maybe we should have seen this coming. With BC's win, each of the last six unranked teams to win a road game against the No. 1-ranked team hailed from the ACC.



What comes next?
If there's good news for the Orange, it's this: the last time Boston College defeated a No. 1 team, the victim was North Carolina (on the Tar Heels' home court) in 2009. Four months later, UNC won the national championship.



Tip-off Live

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
10:09
AM ET
To watch on your smart phone, click here.

ESPN.com reporters Eamonn Brennan, Myron Medcalf and Dana O’Neil joined host Chantel Jennings to check in on undefeated Syracuse and the status of Oklahoma State’s tournament hopes. It’s also time to preview Duke’s delayed tilt with suddenly hot North Carolina.

BPI Talk: Why Florida is the best team

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
10:55
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Which team is the best team in college basketball? And how do we really measure that?

Syracuse is No. 1 in the AP Poll, but that is based on the subjective votes of media members.

Arizona is No. 1 in BPI and Kansas is No. 1 in RPI. But those metrics are based on formulas that factor in a team’s performance through the entire season.

The more insightful question is: Which team is the best with the roster we think each team will have in the NCAA Tournament?

For most teams, that's their current roster, but there are a few exceptions.

To evaluate that, we'll use each team's BPI with all of its key players. Those key players are defined as the five players who average the most minutes per game among players who have played at least half of the team's games. Games in which a key player played less than 10 minutes due to injury or foul trouble or any other reason are not included.

Florida reigns supreme
Based on this metric, the Florida Gators are the best team in college basketball.

With their current roster -- with Scott Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Michael Frazier II, Patric Young and Dorian Finney-Smith in the lineup together -- they are 17-1, with their only loss coming by one point to UConn on a buzzer-beater by Shabazz Napier.

Undefeated Syracuse comes in at No. 2, followed by Kansas at No. 3.

A healthy Michigan State is dangerous
Michigan State is expected to have Branden Dawson back for the NCAA Tournament. Based on Dawson’s returning, the Spartans would rank fourth with their full squad.

That's a significant jump from their overall No. 15 BPI rank. They've lost four of seven games since Dawson went out.

In their two games with all of their key players except Dawson, the Spartans have a 61.1 BPI (win against New Orleans, loss to Nebraska), which would rank well below any team expected to get an at-large bid. That’s how important a healthy Dawson could be to their chances of going deep in the NCAA Tournament.

Is Iowa a top-5 team?
Based on this metric, the Iowa Hawkeyes are No. 5. They're 18-4 with their full squad.

Jarrod Uthoff has played at least 10 minutes in all but two games (at Michigan and against Ohio State). Iowa lost both.

Arizona isn't top 10 without Brandon Ashley
The Arizona Wildcats have been a much different team without Brandon Ashley, who is expected to miss the rest of the season.

Based on this metric, the Wildcats are No. 13. They're 2-2 without Ashley. That includes losses at California and at Arizona State and a two-point home win against Oregon.

Arizona has the No. 1 BPI with Ashley in the lineup, but it's a different story without him. Ashley could be the difference between Arizona being the National Championship favorite and not even contending for a Final Four berth.

What about Oklahoma State and North Carolina?
Although Michael Cobbins isn't among the top-five Oklahoma State players in minutes per game, the Cowboys are a much different team without him. Their BPI without Cobbins but with Marcus Smart ranks 33rd in this metric among teams currently in the BPI top 40.

Oklahoma State is 4-6 without Cobbins and with Smart, with two wins against West Virginia and home wins against Texas and TCU.

North Carolina's current roster includes Leslie McDonald, who was ruled eligible Dec. 18 after he missed the first nine games of the season. Since then, the Tar Heels' current roster has the worst BPI of any team currently in the BPI top 40.

The Tar Heels are ranked No. 32 overall in BPI, but their three best wins of the season -- against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky -- came without McDonald.

Since McDonald returned, they have losses to Wake Forest and Miami (FL) and didn't have a BPI top-50 win before Saturday's victory against Pittsburgh.

Does “clutch” exist?

Most advanced statisticians say no. Time and again, when the data is compiled and collated, the numbers tell us that in “clutch” situations, most players perform roughly as well as at any other point in the game. Sometimes, the players we know are clutch — Kobe Bryant is the most notable example — are even worse than normal. Science tells us no, clutch isn’t a thing. But then how do you explain Tyler Ennis?

Here’s another question: Was Syracuse supposed to beat Pittsburgh on Wednesday night?

The Orange trailed the entire game — they were never behind by more than a bucket or two, sure, but they were never in command, either. They were outrebounded by huge ratios on both ends of the floor. The offense was frequently stagnant.

In the closing moments, they traded toe-to-toe go-ahead free throws, but they were on the wrong side of that exchange with four seconds and zero timeouts and the ball out of bounds on their own baseline. The only shot they could get was a 35-foot heave from their freshman point guard as the buzzer expired. You’re not supposed to win that game, are you?

[+] EnlargeTyler Ennis
Justin Berl/Icon SMISyracuse freshman point guard Tyler Ennis is proving to be practically unstoppable with the game on the line.
Maybe you are, maybe you’re not, but you don’t get to be 24-0 without the wind at your back. Sometimes, the coin flips your direction a few times in a row. Sometimes “supposed to” has nothing to do with it.

Sometimes, clutch does exist.

Yes, folks, Syracuse is 24-0, still rolling, still discovering new and more nail-biting ways to win games, still unbeaten two full weeks into February. The latest escape, a 58-56 win at Pittsburgh, came courtesy of Ennis — who else? — who recused the Orange from a hard-fought first loss of the season with a stunning 35-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer.

How does this keep happening? Ennis didn’t just make the game-winner, after all; he cooly knocked down two free throws a possession earlier to put the Orange ahead for the first time. It was only after Pitt forward Talib Zanna repaid the favor on the other end that some truly silly last-second heroics were required.

But that’s what Ennis has done all season. According to ESPN Stats and Info — and these are crazy numbers, so it’s probably best to be seated — in one-possession games in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime games this season, Ennis is 8-of-9 from the field and 14-of-14 from the free throw line with six assists and zero turnovers. On “game-tying or go-ahead plays,” he is 4-of-4 from the field and 8-of-8 from the line. Against Duke, he made the free throws that would have sealed the game in regulation, before Rasheed Sulaimon’s buzzer-beating 3. In overtime of that game, he went 4-of-4 from the stripe.

Most NBA veterans don’t have this gift of self-assured cool. Ennis is a freshman in college.

That said, chalking it all up to Ennis’ brilliance would do the rest of the Orange a disservice, just as claiming Syracuse didn’t deserve to win Wednesday would belie the strength of their performance, and their opponent’s.

Pitt won the interior battle against one of the longest, toughest teams in the country. It grabbed 47 percent of its own misses and 76 percent of Syracuse’s, and it blocked 25 percent of available shots on its own end. Syracuse was held to just three second-chance points. Save their two meetings with Pitt, the Orange have scored at least eight in every other game this season.

On offense, the Panthers poked and prodded the Syracuse zone with relative efficiency, using Lamar Patterson’s brilliant feel (and years of Big East experience) to break down the middle of the zone. The final Pitt free throws happened exactly that way — Patterson got the ball into the middle of the lane and dropped off a little pass to Zanna, who drew the foul. It was hardly the first time that strategy worked Wednesday night. Zanna finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds, Patterson with 14 points, four rebounds and four assists.

[+] EnlargeTyler Ennis
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsEnnis had made only one field goal in the second half before his buzzer-beater.
But Syracuse, despite trailing for so much of the game, was better in nearly every other area. The Orange shot the ball better, at least when it wasn’t being blocked, including 6-of-14 from 3-point range. (Trevor Cooney was 3-of-8, and his biggest of the night tied the game at 45 with 6:54 to play.) They got to the free-throw line more often. They turned the ball over on just 15 percent of their possessions, while forcing Pittsburgh to cough it up 21 percent of the time — swarming, stifling stuff that kept the game within reach throughout the second half. Patterson got his 14 points, sure, but he needed 16 shots to do it.

All of which made it possible for Ennis to do his thing at the end. Which he promptly did.

It’s hard to overstate how disappointing the loss is for Pittsburgh. On the one hand, there’s no shame in losing to Syracuse. On the other hand, after playing the Orange close on the road early in the year, after home losses (the latter a similar heartbreaker) to Duke and Virginia two weeks ago, and after near-upsets to Miami and Virginia Tech on the road in the past seven days, Dixon’s struggling team had a victory over the top team in the country right in its grasp.

One might conclude that paragraph by saying Pitt let the game “slip away.” That Pitt should have won, that Syracuse should have lost. That this was the night Ennis’s unmistakable clutchness would fall in line with scientific understanding. That Wednesday night the Orange were finally supposed to lose.

Instead, Ennis kept making everything, from free throws to last-second 35-foot floaters, with the clock ticking down and the game on the line. And Boeheim’s team kept winning.

How better to describe the 24-0 Syracuse Orange? “Supposed to” does not apply.

Cooney saves 'Cuse from letdown

February, 4, 2014
Feb 4
12:06
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Two nights after the best game of a great 2013-14 season, played in front of the largest on-campus crowd in college basketball history -- a brilliant back-and-forth affair so good it stunned Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and Duke Mike Krzyzewski, the two winningest coaches ever to roam Division I sidelines, into awed reverence -- Syracuse responded the way anyone who reaches that kind of sheer adrenaline high is bound to. With symptoms of withdrawal.

C.J. Fair, so imperious Saturday night, shot 2-of-13. Jerami Grant was 3-of-8. Tyler Ennis finished with six points on 2-of-5 shooting. Rakeem Christmas shot 50 percent but attempted just two field goals, so that’s hardly a distinction. Notre Dame arrived in Syracuse 12-10 on the season, a team largely decimated by the season-ending suspension of Jerian Grant (Jerami’s brother) for academic reasons, with matchup woes all over the floor. But the Fighting Irish defended and took care of the ball well enough to push Syracuse hard on its own floor on a night when pretty much every player in an Orange uniform looked out of sorts, drained and hollow.

Well, except Trevor Cooney.

Cooney was none of those things. Cooney was locked in. Cooney was energetic, physical, engaged. Cooney shot 11-of-15 with nine 3-pointers. The rest of the Orange made 10 field goals total -- Cooney outdid them by one on his own. His 33 points were more than half of the 61 Syracuse needed to hold off the pesky, muddying Irish. It is no stretch to say he singlehandedly saved Syracuse’s chase for regular-season perfection.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Cooney
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY SportsTrevor Cooney made it rain when most of his teammates' offensive games went dry, helping No. 1 Syracuse remain undefeated.
He also provided a helpful manual for just why this 22-0 Syracuse team is profoundly difficult to beat.

Fair has been the Orange’s workhorse all season. After his 28 points on 12-20 shooting against Duke on Saturday -- a relentless barrage that buoyed Syracuse as the Blue Devils knocked down 3-pointer after 3-pointer -- Boeheim remarked that Fair had morphed into a great player in the matter of 45 minutes. But he was already really, really good. He played his worst game of the season Monday, and Syracuse still won.

Ennis has been the steadiest Orange all season. He is a preternaturally talented guard, but his greatest strength has been his unshakeable calm, his consistency. Since the start of the season, he has been scoring the ball efficiently, finding teammates for buckets on 32.2 percent of his possessions, rarely turning the ball over, and generating steals. And on Monday night, he played his least assertive game of the season (he still had eight assists and six rebounds, so calling it his “worst” would be harsh), and Syracuse still won.

They won because, oh yeah, Cooney is awfully good, too.

Despite shooting 42 percent from 3-point territory on the season and posting an offensive rating in the mid-130s, the sophomore shooting guard has received less attention than either of the Orange stars. In January, that has mostly made sense: After a brilliantly hot shooting start, ACC opponents have focused more of their perimeter attention on Cooney, refusing to leave him alone on the perimeter even when Ennis and Fair and Grant probe and muscle their way to the rim. In Syracuse’s first three ACC games, Cooney’s 3-point shooting was bad: 2-of-12 at Miami, 3-of-8 versus Virginia Tech, 2-of-12 again versus North Carolina. He was 2-of-5 against Boston College, 2-of-8 against Pitt, 0-5 at Wake Forest. Even Saturday night, Cooney’s shooting was hardly why Syracuse beat Duke: He attempted just two long-range shots.

Of course, Cooney was helping his team win even when he wasn’t making shots: He was drawing defensive attention, but he was also playing great, disruptive defense on the other end: Cooney forces 4.5 steals every 100 possessions, 16th-most in the country. He’s far from a one-trick specialist.

But still, he hadn’t had a definitive shooting night since December. On Monday, he had much more than that: He tied a school-record (held by his childhood hero, Gerry McNamara) for most 3s in a game. He singlehandedly shot his team to a win it otherwise probably didn’t deserve.

This is the thing about Syracuse, made all the more remarkable by the talent Boeheim lost this summer (guards Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche, as well as wing James Southerland): There is always someone there to beat you. This weekend, against Clemson, nine-tenths of the Orange roster might struggle, Cooney included, but Grant might go off. Or maybe it’ll be Ennis. Or Fair. Or ... well, you get the point.

Syracuse had the night of its life Saturday, and on Monday it felt the after-effects. But because Cooney shot so well, and Boeheim has so very many weapons at his disposal, it managed to escape with a win anyway.

How do you get past the first week of February without a loss, as the Orange have? Nights like Cooney’s are a pretty good place to start.

Freshman Focus: All six in action Saturday

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
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One of the main stories in college basketball this season has been the performance of the freshman phenoms. All six of the freshmen who have been included in ESPN's Freshman Focus will be in action Saturday. It's one of three remaining days in the regular season that they will all play on the same day.

Tyler Ennis, Syracuse Orange
Although not the most-hyped freshman entering the season, no Division I freshman has more win shares, according to College Basketball Reference. At 3.8, Ennis trails only Pittsburgh’s Lamar Patterson for the top spot among all ACC players.

Ennis has shined with his clutch play. Syracuse has been tied or behind at the five-minute mark in the second half in five games this season, including in each of its last two. The Orange outscored their opponents by 37 points the rest of the way in those eventual wins.

Jabari Parker, Duke Blue Devils
Parker and Duke will go head-to-head with Ennis and Syracuse this Saturday. Parker has shined for Duke this season, with 12 20-point games, already tied for sixth-most all-time among ACC freshmen.

Entering Friday, Parker is one of just seven players in all of Division I this season to average at least 18 points and eight rebounds per game. He’s also improving as the season’s going on, averaging 18.8 points and 11.8 rebounds per game in his last four ACC games (10.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG in first four ACC games).

Julius Randle, Kentucky Wildcats
No school has had more highly-regarded freshmen recently than Kentucky, but as the chart on the right shows, Randle's offense is exceeding what Nerlens Noel and Anthony Davis did to start their freshman years.

Randle leads all Division I freshman with 11 double-doubles this season, three more than Noah Vonleh of Indiana.

Aaron Gordon, Arizona Wildcats
Gordon has played a key role in Arizona's start, which also happens to be the longest win streak in school history.

Although he’s struggled shooting the last few games, he remains one of the best rebounders in the freshman class, leading all Pac-12 freshmen in offensive and defensive rebounds per game.

Andrew Wiggins, Kansas Jayhawks
Wiggins is coming off a big night in Kansas’ win Wednesday over the 16th-ranked Iowa State Cyclones. He scored a career-high 29 points, the second straight game he set a career high in scoring.

Wiggins' ability to get easier shots up close to the hoop is his strong point. He leads the Big 12 (and is third in the nation) in transition points per play, and has shot nearly 73 percent from the paint in his last two games, well above his average over the first 18 games (55.8%).

Joel Embiid, Kansas Jayhawks
Unlike his teammate Wiggins, Embiid started the season under the radar among the freshman class, but has put his name among the best in the class with his improvement during the season.

In November and December, Embiid averaged 10.8 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. In January, those numbers are up to 12.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game.

Zone D, freshmen crucial in Duke-Syracuse

January, 31, 2014
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Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsTyler Ennis' late-game play has helped Syracuse to an undefeated record.
On Saturday (6:30 PM ET, ESPN and WatchESPN), the second-ranked Syracuse Orange, off to a 20-0 start, host the 17th-ranked Duke Blue Devils in the first ACC meeting between the schools, and just their fifth meeting all-time.

Syracuse’s 20-0 start matches the 2011-12 team for the best in school history. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Syracuse is the first school to start 20-0 twice in a three-season span since the North Carolina Tar Heels did it in 1983-84 and 1985-86.

Duke, on the other hand, has won five straight games following a 1-2 start in ACC play.

What will be the keys for victory?

Duke vs Syracuse’s zone defense
Planning to take on Syracuse always involves trying to find a way to break Jim Boeheim’s zone defense.

The Orange have forced a turnover on 19% of defensive possessions in its zone defense this season. That’s the second-highest turnover percentage this season (minimum 500 plays), trailing only Arkansas Pine-Bluff.

Syracuse also has the only two players in the ACC averaging more than two steals per game: Tyler Ennis (2.5) and Trevor Cooney (2.2). Ennis is tied for 13th in all of Division I in that category.

Duke has had some success against zone defenses this season, averaging 0.98 points per play against zones, the third-best in the ACC.

Duke is fifth in Division I in 3-point field goal percentage this season (41.4%), but that number drops to 36 percent against zone defenses.

Battle of the freshmen
Both teams feature headline freshmen, Duke’s Jabari Parker and Syracuse’s Ennis.

Parker, one of seven Division I players averaging at least 18 points and eight rebounds per game this season, could have a big game facing a zone defense. He’s shooting 50.7 percent against zone defenses this season, the best in the ACC among players with at least 60 plays, and above his overall season average.

He is also on pace to do something no Duke freshman has ever done, lead the team in both scoring and rebounding. Austin Rivers (2011-12) and Johnny Dawkins (1982-83) are the only freshmen to lead the Blue Devils in scoring.

Ennis is not just one of the top freshmen in the country, but one of the top point guards period. His 3.9 assist-to-turnover ratio is fourth-best in the nation.

If it comes down to crunch-time, expect to see Ennis step up. In the last five minutes of games this season, he has 14 assists and no turnovers.

Dawkins magic number
The mark to hit for Duke’s Andre Dawkins is 10 points. This season, the Blue Devils are 10-0 when he scores in double figures, and 39-2 in his career.

He’s proven most effective on jump shots, with a 69.5 effective (or adjusted) field goal percentage on jump shots this season, third-best in Division I (minimum 90 attempts).
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Do Michigan State’s injuries matter? In the words of Orlando Jones’ magazine salesman in “Office Space”: that all depends.

On Saturday, when the Spartans fell at home to hated rival Michigan -- a hard-fought and thrilling game that included a “Just-in Bei-ber” chant, Mitch McGary’s brilliant coaching advice (“win the game”) and a loving Nik Stauskas farewell -- they did so without forwards Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne. Payne, foot be-booted, missed his fifth straight game. Dawson, who broke his hand in a self-inflicted outburst during an apparently intense Thursday film session, missed his first, with many more to come. Tom Izzo found himself plunging deep into his frontcourt reserves: Alex Gauna and Gavin Schilling made appearances. Matt Costello’s 28 minutes were a season high. Russell Byrd, who hadn’t played more than five minutes in any non-guaranteed blowout all season, ran for 13.

It was tempting, then, to attach an asterisk to the entire affair, a temptation ESPN’s Chantel Jennings discussed -- and convincingly dismissed -- Saturday night. The Wolverines were missing McGary, after all, and the adjustments they’ve made since December have been stunning. Besides, Izzo wouldn’t hear of it.

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
AP Photo/Al GoldisInjuries have forced Tom Izzo to look for answers on Michigan State's bench.
Whatever caveats Spartans fans will use to defend themselves from their Wolverine tormentors, let’s be clear: In a micro sense, of course the injuries mattered. Payne and Dawson make Michigan State a different team from the still-good-but-incomplete version the Spartans had at their disposal Saturday night.

The real question is how these injuries will affect Michigan State in the long run. For starters, there is the Big Ten race, where the Spartans are now staring down a one-game deficit and a much more difficult remaining schedule than John Beilein’s team. But the most interesting fallout could be in the NCAA tournament seeding.

The selection committee weighs a team’s performance during and after injury, and does its best to take the “true” measure of a team based on the gulf between the two. If Michigan State doesn’t slide too far in Dawson’s (and Payne’s) absences, and then looks brilliant upon their various returns, they’ll be seeded accordingly. But if the Spartans nosedive for the next two weeks? Or the next month? The committee can apply only so many asterisks. It’s unlikely, but what happens then?

On Tuesday, Michigan State faces Iowa’s offensive onslaught in Iowa City. On Saturday, they play an even-more-hobbled Georgetown. How the Spartans look next time this week should tell us a lot about just how important their injuries will look in March.

ICYMI: TOP STORIES

Arizona shrugs off Utah, moves to 20-0. Just after the Wildcats finished their 65-56 brush-off of Utah Sunday night, the Fox Sports 1 crew placed the rosters of the greatest Arizona teams of all time next to Sean Miller’s team -- Steve Kerr, Kenny Lofton, Miles Simon, Richard Jefferson and all the rest. It was a sobering comparison: On paper, this Arizona team now ranks above the greatest Wildcats teams of all time. On the floor, it’s hard to argue otherwise, something the dominant final few minutes of an otherwise so-so performance showed. (It was also, for what it’s worth, a pretty impressive performance from Utah, which continues to look miles removed from the six-win disaster of 2011-12.)

Cincinnati keeps winning. Sshh. You can look at Cincinnati’s 80-76 win at Temple Sunday night one of two ways. You could note that the Bearcats were outscored 29-15 in the final 10 minutes against a bad team. Or, you could note that Cincinnati was outscored 29-15 in the final 10 minutes and went ahead and won anyway. You should also note that the Bearcats have ever so quietly jumped out to an 8-0 AAC record, are 19-2 overall, suffered their last loss Dec. 14 against Xavier, beat Pitt three days later, rebound 40 percent of their own misses and have one of the stingiest per-trip defenses in the country.

North Carolina avoided ignominy. Given North Carolina’s horrendous January -- which included a road loss to Wake Forest, a home loss to Miami, a 45-point effort at Syracuse and a throttling at Virginia -- and Clemson’s surprisingly capable defense, you could practically hear people getting ready to laugh at UNC when it inevitably lost its first-ever game to the Tigers at home. Giant clouds of schadenfreude were gathered on the horizon. It was going to be a thing! And then Roy Williams had to go and reminded his team it beat Louisville and Michigan State. North Carolina scored 80 points in 61 possessions Sunday, and the storm broke apart in the atmosphere.

STAT OF THE WEEK: Creighton. That is all.

THE GAMES YOU NEED TO SEE

(For two more in-depth previews of big games week to come, check back for Monday morning’s “Planning for Success” series.)

Tuesday

Michigan State at Iowa, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: How’s this for a quick Saturday-Tuesday turnaround? As we discussed above, Michigan State’s road trip week starts in Iowa City and ends vs. Georgetown in Madison Square Garden, and the first fixture is the more challenging by a factor of 10. The Hawkeyes, who rank with the nation’s best by every meaningful statistical measure, drilled Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., after Wednesday’s loss in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Wednesday

Iowa State at Kansas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: For most of the season, Iowa State’s offense ranked among the nation’s best; it was certainly, in all its shape-shifting uptempo glory, one of the most entertaining. Since the start of Big 12 play -- and roughly coinciding with DeAndre Kane’s sprained ankle at Oklahoma -- the Cyclones’ offense is scoring just 1.06 points per trip, ninth best in the Big 12. What better time for a trip to Lawrence?!

Thursday

Cincinnati at Louisville, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: For all its travails this season -- the bad nonconference slate, the loss at rival Kentucky, the departure of Chane Behanan -- the Louisville Cardinals have, for the most part, played pretty excellent basketball. (The latest? A 41-point win at South Florida Saturday.) Cincinnati can identify with the whole “good basketball going largely unnoticed” thing. Thursday’s winner should get everyone’s attention.

Saturday

Arizona at Cal, 10:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network: Before we get all crazy: Arizona still has to play at Stanford on Wednesday. It still has a back-to-back road trip to Arizona State and Utah in mid-February. It still has two dates against Oregon. And now, with those important caveats out of the way, if the Wildcats win at Cal on Saturday, it is conceivable -- not likely, not probably, barely possible, but conceivable -- they could run the regular-season table. Gird loins accordingly.

Duke at Syracuse, 6 :30 p.m. ET, ESPN: Two weeks ago, this game would have been a harder sell, because two weeks ago the Blue Devils were coming off back-to-back losses against Notre Dame and Clemson, and freshman star Jabari Parker looked like his face had become intimately acquainted with the notorious freshman “wall.” No more: Duke has won four straight, the latest, a 78-56 rout of Florida State (in 63 possessions) its most complete performance of the season. OK, so it’s Duke-Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. It was never actually a hard sell. But now the Orange don’t look quite so likely to dominate.

PHOTO OF THE WEEK

Nick JohnsonChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesArizona's Nick Johnson reacts after his two-handed second-half dunk in a 65-56 win on Sunday. If the whole basketball thing doesn't work, a career in professional wrestling isn't a bad Plan B.

Ennis' value as a freshman is unmatched

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
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While the Freshman Focus has been on four players this season (Duke's Jabari Parker, Kentucky's Julius Randle, Arizona's Aaron Gordon and Kansas' Andrew Wiggins), there is another first-year star who belongs in that group. And this player -- Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis -- has a strong argument to be considered the most valuable freshman in Division I basketball this season.

Win Shares is an all-encompassing statistic that estimates the number of wins contributed by a player from his offense and defense, based on his points produced and points allowed when on the court.

According to this measure, Ennis has contributed more wins to his team than any freshman in Division I this season (3.2).

Ennis is basically irreplaceable as Syracuse’s point guard. He has accounted for 43 percent of his team’s assists and 29 percent of steals, both of which are the highest rates among major-conference freshmen this season.

Replacing a star
One of the biggest questions for the Orange heading into this season was how they would replace their backcourt leader from last year's Final Four team, Michael Carter-Williams, who was selected 11th overall by the 76ers.

Consider that question answered with Ennis, who has left no doubt that he is more than capable of directing the Syracuse offense this season.

In comparing Ennis' play this season to MCW's last season, Ennis is the more efficient shooter and ball handler, but Carter-Williams has the advantage in his ability to distribute the ball.

Leading the Orange
Ennis is a freshman, but he plays with the poise of a four-year starter. It was 16 games before he committed more than two turnovers, and for the season he turns the ball over only 1.4 times per game.

Though Ennis is not a prolific scorer, he has excelled in scoring off ball screens. He is averaging nearly one point per play as the pick-and-roll ball handler and has scored at least one point on 45 percent of those plays, the fourth-highest rate in the ACC (min. 25 plays).

He is aggressive in these situations, dribbling off the pick more than 80 percent of the time and then typically driving to the basket, where he has scored 23 points on 15 shot attempts.

Ennis' impact on the Orange is felt not only on the offensive end but also as a key part of Syracuse's patented 2-3 zone. He averages an ACC-best 2.8 steals per game and has defended the ball screen well. Opposing pick-and-roll ball handlers have made zero of their 12 shot attempts against Ennis, who has forced four turnovers on 19 such plays.

He may not have received the preseason hype that the four freshmen mentioned above got, but Ennis has clearly proved his worth to the No. 2 team in the country on both offense and defense and deserves to be recognized as one of the best freshmen in the country this season.

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