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San Antonio suddenly within Syracuse's sights

Come on, admit it. The thought of Syracuse getting back to the Final Four this year was about as likely as Carmelo Anthony returning to upstate New York for his sophomore season.

Uh, you might want to check out the Phoenix Region.

Syracuse may not have Melo (or Kueth Duany and Billy Edelin, for that matter). But the Orange is halfway to San Antonio, not to mention, far from finished defending their national title.

Still not convinced?

OK, take No. 1 seed Stanford out of Syracuse's equation and replace the Cardinal with eighth-seeded Alabama next Thursday in Phoenix. Look a step further, and if the Orangemen can get past the Tide, they could face No. 2 seed Connecticut -- a team Syracuse beat at home to end the regular season.

Yes, Syracuse beat a Connecticut with a wounded Emeka Okafor, who played in the Carrier Dome with back spasms. But the Orangemen still won, which means they won't lack confidence going into an Elite Eight matchup against UConn, or the winner of Sunday's NC State-Vanderbilt game, should the Huskies stumble next week.

"We faced so much criticism," Syracuse sophomore guard Gerry McNamara said Saturday night by phone from Denver after the Orangemen beat Maryland 72-70 to reach the Sweet 16. "Everyone doubted us without Carmelo Anthony. If we can get there again, it would be so much sweeter."

How can you doubt McNamara? All he's done is do his best Tom Brady impersonation, leading Syracuse to eight straight NCAA Tournament wins. McNamara single-handedly got the Orangemen out of round one with a Herculean 43 points in a win over BYU on Thursday.

"But he's got two championships," McNamara said of the New England quarterback who has never lost a NFL playoff game as the Patriots' starter. "I still need to get the other one."

"This team has so much heart," said Hakim Warrick, who led the Orangemen with 26 points against Maryland. "We've definitely got a chip on our shoulder. Guys want to play even harder and prove that this wasn't a one-man team last year."

Boeheim coolly walked into the locker room after Saturday's game and informed his Orangemen that they would be playing Alabama next in Phoenix.

"I thought he made a mistake," Warrick said. "I was shocked. I thought we had to play Stanford to get through this. This is great. If we can get through that game and play a Connecticut team that we beat before then our confidence is going to be there to (win again).

"We still feel like we've got a really good team, a team that can make a run to the Final Four,'' Warrick said. "We feel like we can beat any team in the nation.''
The Orangemen are somewhat surprised and, to some extent, celebrating the break in the bracket, but they wouldn't want anything else but Connecticut in their path to San Antonio.

"I would take anything to get back to the Final Four,'' McNamara said. "We've got to play two tough teams, but the best team talent wise is Connecticut. If we get by Alabama, we'll have to go through Connecticut.

"We're confident, we always have been,'' McNamara said. "That's what's great about this team. We've been down a few games but we've always been together and believed we could win another championship.''

To say this is Jim Boeheim's greatest coaching job wouldn't be a reach. He had to mold this year's team without the eventual No. 3 pick in the NBA draft. Syracuse also lost Duany, who was the glue to last year's team. Then, without advance notice, he had to reshuffle a team without its starting point guard Edelin when he had to step aside for personal reasons in the middle of the Big East season.

Boeheim also had to integrate four freshmen into the rotation, including one who wasn't eligible to start the season. Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins said Boeheim's coaching has been by far the best he's seen since arriving at Syracuse.

But, no matter the job Boehim has done, Syracuse still has two players among the best at their position in the country -- McNamara and Warrick. The point guard just might be one of the toughest in the country, let alone one of the best shooters. The small forward, meanwhile, is one of the toughest matchups in the game because of his ability to get to the basket from a myriad of spots on the court.

"Not too many teams have two guys the caliber of Gerry and Hakim," Hopkins said.

It's McNamara's toughness that makes it tough to doubt this team's season will end without at least one more win. According to Hopkins, McNamara has played with a pulled groin for a month and partially separated his shoulder at one point this season.

"He's got injuries that aren't going to heal until he really takes time off," Hopkins said. "This is the same guy who made six 3s in the first half of the national championship game a year ago. He's a big-time player."

Still, the Orangemen were on the verge of being an NIT team when they lost four of five games to drop to 15-5 overall and 5-4 in the Big East. But that was during the first few games of Edelin's absence. The Orangemen eventually recovered to win at Pittsburgh -- snapping the Panthers' 40-game homecourt win streak -- and then beat Connecticut to end the regular season.

Sure, there were speed bumps, as Warrick calls them. A late-season loss to Notre Dame in the Dome, as well as a loss to Boston College in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament. But this team snapped back quickly, but not so quietly this weekend.

Losing early in New York may have actually helped the Orangemen. While Maryland had to grind out a three-game run through the ACC tournament, and then a tough game against UTEP, Syracuse seemed a bit fresher Saturday. Well, at least most of the Orangemen. McNamara was admittedly spent after his flurry of 3s against BYU and it showed. He made just 2 of 11 shots and 2 of 7 on 3s.

"My legs were shot," said McNamara, who finished with 13 points. "I just tried to get as much rest as possible throughout the game. I battled through it in the second half. I tried to keep drinking fluids, anything to stay in there."

"He gutted it out," Hopkins said of McNamara who had to add the responsibilities of being the point guard in Edelin's absence. "He's got so much heart. Remember, we've still got him, Hakim, Craig (Forth), Jeremy (McNeil) and Josh (Pace) returning from a national championship team. We've got experience going down the stretch. Gerry is a big-game player and we've got the role players, too."

Forth is a prime example that there is still enough talent left in the Syracuse area code to talk about a title run. The 7-footer scored 10 points and grabbed 12 rebounds against the Terps. Freshman Demetris Nichols also provided a necessary scoring pop with a pair of 3s.

It also didn't hurt that the Terps couldn't solve the Orangemen's defense. Remember the 2-3 zone that carried the Orange past Manhattan, Oklahoma State, Auburn, Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas last year? Well, it's still baffling those outside the Big East. Maryland shot 38 percent, 25 percent on 3s.

"It was like that Oklahoma game," Hopkins said of beating the Sooners in the Elite Eight last year. "Maryland looked confused by our defense. We've become that team in the bracket like Princeton and Temple always were where no one wants to play us when they see us in the bracket."

So, like Texas, Syracuse advanced to the Sweet 16 without its best player from a year ago. But the veterans that returned are experienced enough with this tournament to get back and to the second weekend again.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.