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Sunday, February 28, 2010
Orange crush too much for Villanova

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- When teams start collecting game film of Syracuse in about three weeks, they should file the reels from the Villanova game under "horror."

Syracuse Orange
Six Syracuse players scored in double figures as the Orange rolled over Villanova, 95-77.

This wasn't a victory. This was a massacre.

And for anyone who might draw the Orange card come March, the tape offers a blood-curdling and terrifying two-hour slasher film sure to send shivers down the spine.

Syracuse unleashed an arsenal of offense; a blanket of defense; and, most frightening, a dizzying display of balance with six players in double figures as they and 34,616 of their closest friends brought down the Orange crush on Villanova, 95-77.

Hyped and anticipated because of the record crowd -- the most at an on-campus venue, the first sellout in Syracuse history -- the show the players put on was even more impressive than the loud sea of orange-wearing fans.

This was easily the most impressive beatdown one top team has put on another all season. (Sorry, Kansas fans, but by the time Texas tipped off, the Longhorns were on their way down the polls.) It was a pounding that could in one 40 minutes lead to Syracuse's first outright Big East regular-season crown since 1991 (the Orange already guaranteed themselves a share), all but lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and potentially loft the Orange to a No. 1 ranking come Monday.

It's been 20 years since the Orange stood atop the polls -- a stunning fact that ranks right alongside the notion that Jim Boeheim has never been coach of the year -- and the only thing standing between Syracuse and No. 1 is Purdue. If the Boilermakers, currently ranked third, beat Michigan State on Sunday, will voters launch the Robbie Hummel-less Boilers to the top spot, or will Syracuse, based on its available roster, leapfrog to the top of the heap?

The Orange haven't soared to the top since Jan. 6, 1990. (There was no poll following Carmelo Anthony's national championship run.)

"Are we the best team in the country? I think so," Jardine said. "Why wouldn't we be?"

Scottie Reynolds
Scoop Jardine scored 16 points off the bench for the Orange.

Hard to summon much of an argument against.

Here's a riddle for college basketball coaches: How do you beat Syracuse? Villanova couldn't figure it out.

In the first half, Villanova held Johnson and Rautins to eight field goal attempts combined and eight points apiece. So Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph came off the bench for 12 and nine respectively, with Joseph adding seven boards to push the Orange to a 10-point lead at the break.

To start the second, the Wildcats packed the inside. Andy Rautins and Johnson drained 3-pointers.

So Villanova patrolled the perimeter. Enter Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson, who finished with 17 and 19, respectively.

"That's the way we play -- we try to be balanced," Jim Boeheim said.

It's a chameleon offense that will make the Orange especially difficult come March. One-dimensional offenses fall apart in the quick turnaround pressures of the NCAA tournament, undone if what they do doesn't work.

Certainly, Villanova's deficiencies were exposed against the Orange. Unable to penetrate the zone, Nova launched 28 3-pointers, and when the shots didn't fall for anyone other than Scottie Reynolds, the Wildcats were loath to generate any offense.

Syracuse?

You say inside, they play outside; you say outside, they play inside.

You say Johnson, they say Joseph; you say Rautins, they say Jackson.

"I'd be real scared to play us," Joseph said. "When we play in sync like we did tonight, we're really hard to beat."

What makes the Orange so good -- and scary -- is the way they play together. Syracuse had 21 assists on 32 made baskets. Rautins, smothered for much of the game, dished out eight assists, and Johnson, still struggling to shoot because of a lingering hand injury, added four.

Kris Joseph
Kris Joseph came off the bench to help spark a first-half run that gave the Orange a lead they would never relinquish.

The players talk about the friendship among themselves -- a common theme sung in many locker rooms -- but really, the Orange's unselfishness is born out of sacrifice.

Johnson and Jardine were spectators in practice last year -- Johnson sitting out as a transfer, Jardine rehabbing a stress fracture in his left leg. Rautins has had his turn on the bench, sitting out the entire 2007-08 season after tearing his ACL.

"Definitely it's that hunger," Johnson said. "Me and Scoop sat out watching last year. It was so hard. We couldn't wait for our turn, and when it came, we didn't care what we had to do. We just wanted to win."

No one personifies the Orange's selflessness better than Jardine and Joseph. The two would be starters on almost any other team in the Big East.

But Boeheim likes the punch they give off the bench, so when the fanfare begins with the introductions, Jardine and Joseph are chest-bump receivers, not givers.

Just how critical the two are was apparent in the first half. Temporarily stunned by Villanova's quickness, Syracuse coughed up five early turnovers, and the Wildcats built a 20-12 lead.

Enter Jardine and Joseph, and Syracuse went on a 24-11 run in which the duo combined for 14 of the 24 points.

Fittingly Joseph slammed home a Jardine miss to give the Orange a 31-30 lead, an advantage they'd never surrender.

"We're Manu Ginobili and Jason Terry, or maybe throw in Jamal Crawford," Joseph said. "That's what we talk about, being like those great sixth men in the NBA. All they care about is winning. We do what works for the team. Coach Boeheim is a pretty smart guy, and if he thinks this works best, then that's what we'll do."

Boeheim, as hard to please as anyone in the game, could find little to criticize about his team's effort. He praised his players, lauded the crowd and -- at least by his standards of dry wit -- almost waxed eloquent about what makes this team so special.

And then, just as he was finishing up his Ode to Orange news conference, the Hall of Fame coach dropped this bombshell:

"We're getting better, but I think we can still get better as a team," Boeheim said. "I anticipate us getting better in the next few weeks."

That sound you heard was the sound of college basketball coaches screaming in horror.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.