This is part of Mark Wiedmer's annual series on teams with the potential to make the basketball Final Four.
The script is becoming familiar. Syracuse looks good early. Falls behind in second half. Rallies at the finish to win. Again. And again.
It happened once more on Saturday, when the No. 2 Orange blew a double-digit lead at Miami, fell behind by one, then came back to comfortably win its 19th game in 19 outings, 64-52.
“I don’t care what our record is — we’ve had seven games, including this one, that could have easily gone the other way,” moaned 69-year-old Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who’s now in his 38th season coaching his alma mater.
But they’ve all gone the Orange’s way heading into this week’s Atlantic Coast Conference games at Wake Forest and at home against Duke. They are one victory from tying the best start in school history and once more in the discussion to win it all come April, after losing to Michigan in the national semifinals last year.
“They are a great team,” North Carolina forward James Michael McAdoo said after a 57-45 loss at Syracuse’s Carrier Dome earlier this month. “They’re physical. A lot of times the ball just went their way, and that’s the sign of a great team. There were times when the ball was on the ground, and the better team is going to come up with it.”
It’s where they may be better than anyone else in the country that’s shocking college basketball right now, however.
When Michael Carter-Williams became the 11th overall pick in last summer’s NBA draft, most believed Syracuse would struggle at the point without the rising junior. Especially during its first season in the ACC.
Instead, 19-year-old freshman Tyler Ennis has scored in double figures in each of the Orange’s six ACC wins, is averaging four more assists than turnovers and has been at his best down the stretch, such as when he scored seven of his 14 points against Miami in the final 6:09.
“He’s been as steady, probably steadier, than any point guard we’ve ever had,” Boeheim told Sports Illustrated last week. “We’ve had probably a couple flashier point guards. But as far as a freshman just running the team and making plays and being solid – I can’t imagine too many freshman point guards, and not too many upperclass point guards, have been as steady as he has been this year.”
Added losing Miami coach Jim Larranaga: “That’s when [Ennis] starts to attack — six or seven minutes left in the game. He doesn’t appear to be a freshman. He’s so calm out there. You don’t really see that in a college player unless he’s highly skilled, and Tyler Ennis is.”
He’s far from Syracuse’s only skilled player, too. Even with 6-foot-9, 280-pound sophomore post player DaJuan Coleman lost for the rest of the season due to knee problems, the Orange can count on senior forward C.J. Fair for a lot of everything, given his team-high 16.7 scoring average and his 5.8 rebounds a game. Redshirt sophomore guard Trevor Cooney is averaging 13.5 points while hitting nearly 42 percent of his 3-point shots. Sophomore forward Jerami Grant contributes 12.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, and junior post player Rakeem Christmas blocks 1.4 shots a game.
Yet offense has never been Syracuse’s calling card. That honor belongs to Boeheim’s beloved 2-3 zone defense, which has the Orange ranked seventh nationally in points allowed with 57.84 per game. Given that its average margin of victory is less than 14 points against a schedule rated no better than the 72nd toughest at the moment, that zone will determine whether Syracuse can reach a second straight Final Four or be gone by the Sweet 16, which has been the case eight times in the 10 full seasons since Boeheim won his only national championship in 2003.
“They’re really good. They’ve got NBA guys,” Larranaga said. “They have all the weapons offensively and defensively you need to be successful, and they’re a legitimate contender to win a national championship.”
The start of the NCAA tournament still seven weeks away, that’s almost enough to make the brooding Boeheim smile. Almost.
“We’re perilously close to having three or four losses,” he said over the weekend.
That it doesn’t may also be why the ‘Cuse could be closing in on Boeheim’s second NCAA title.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.
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 ...