published Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Wiedmer: Syracuse serious Final Four contender

Boeheim's 34th Orange squad may be the coach's best of 32 with at least 20 wins.

As the story goes, Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim and Louisville coach Rick Pitino were walking with their wives down a beach many years ago when the subject turned to what they'd do and where they'd live if they won a huge lottery.

Three of the four gave storybook destinations such as Hawaii or Paris.

Said Boeheim, who has spent almost all of his 65 years in Syracuse: "I'd stay right where I am. I can't imagine anywhere I'd rather live."

For the second time in eight years, he may be living in the town of the NCAA champs. Now No. 2 in The Associated Press poll and off to the best start in school history (23-1), his Orange men are slowly becoming the alternative pick to win it all instead of preseason favorite and top-ranked Kansas.

Ironically, Syracuse defeated Kansas in the 2003 title game to claim the school's first national crown.

"The best team in the country," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said Sunday after the Orange outscored his Bearcats 28-5 in the final 12 minutes to win 71-54.

"There is a reason they are 23-1. It is hard to get a shot against (their 2-3 zone) in two or three passes, because they are so long. It just keeps trying your patience. Their commitment to defense and making the adjustments and paying attention -- the nonglory stats -- they're as good a team as there is in the country in those areas."

Syracuse wing Kris Joseph, who averages 11 points and five rebounds off the bench, calls the zone "the Shut-It-Down movement. Our S-I-D defense was great (against Cincy)."

Boeheim's beloved zone has held opponents to 38 percent shooting from the floor and 64 points a game -- 18 fewer than the Orange average.

"It has always been effective," said the coach who has posted an NCAA-record 32 20-win seasons in his 34 years on the job. "But we're bigger at the guard spot and inside. We are bigger at the No. 4 spot. It works better against some teams than others. We have made more adjustments this year."

Adjusting to the Orange offense may be the biggest problem for Syracuse foes, however. The 'Cuse is hitting a preposterous 53 percent from the floor with four players averaging in double figures and three more averaging at least eight points a game.

"It was hard to figure out how to stop them," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said after an 84-71 loss to Syracuse in South Bend. "There's just so many weapons that they come at you with. They played like men for 40 minutes. We probably played like men for 32."

After a 17-point loss to the Orange, Providence coach Keno Davis said, "They've got so many guys who can have big games against you. They really understand their defense and they're pretty physical when you try to rebound. It's just a deep, physical, talented team."

The guy who has had the most big games is Iowa State transfer Wes Johnson, who is averaging 16.2 points and 8.8 rebounds, is hitting 75 percent of his free throws and has recorded 42 blocks and 41 steals. Senior guard Andy Rautins -- whose father Leo starred for Boeheim in the 1980s -- scores nearly 11 a game while averaging five assists and two steals and hitting 80 percent from the foul line.

Freshman guard Brandon Triche is throwing in nearly 10 points to go with three assists, while sophomore point Scoop Jardine averages eight points and five assists. Then there are the Bruise Brothers -- Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson -- who each carries over 240 pounds on a 6-9 frame and together provide more interior muscle than Boeheim's had in years.

All this from a team picked sixth in the Big East in the preseason.

"When you lose your three leading scorers," Boeheim told ESPN on Sunday after the Orange improved to 10-1 in league play, "(low preseason rankings) are pretty much automatic. But they don't do that to North Carolina."

Maybe that's a jab at the defending champ Tar Heels (13-10). Or maybe it's a compliment to a program that never gets to surprise people. Either way, Boeheim deserves much praise for his 822 wins, second most among active coaches behind Duke boss Mike Krzyzewski's 852.

Nor can this do anything but make the usually poker-faced Boeheim smile.

Asked why the Orange are winning so often and so easily, the 6-7 Johnson said Sunday, "We feed off our defense. We get a deflection or steal or a block -- that's when we get out in transition and make plays."

They will need to keep making plays to win the Big East, given that road trips remain to Georgetown and Louisville, as well as a Feb. 2 showdown with No. 4 Villanova.

But after routing Georgetown two weeks ago, Boeheim also said, "We can execute better, that's the good news. This team can get better."

That's the bad news for the rest of college basketball.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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