Looking back, there is plenty to take out of Syracuse’s epic Saturday night win at UConn. For the Orange, it clinched another regular season Big East Championship (their second in three years) and further sealed their airtight case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. For the Huskies, it was another lost opportunity to put a cherry on top of their own NCAA Tournament resume, and if they’re not careful, could be the start of a death march to the NIT.
All of that conversation is for another day though, because right now, there is one thought that I can’t seem to get out of my head. That thought? When they’re playing their best, Syracuse is the best team in college basketball. That’s not something I would’ve written a week ago, a month ago or even two days ago. But after seeing the Orange in person, with my own eyes against UConn Saturday, that’s honestly the way I feel.
Now please understand a few things.
First, there is no transitive property working here. Just because I said Syracuse is the best, doesn’t mean that I somehow think Kentucky is bad. I don’t, and anyone who reads my work knows that. Like Syracuse, I’ve seen Kentucky in person (in the case of the Wildcats, twice actually), and from a basketball perspective there isn’t much not to like. The Wildcats are deep. They’re talented. They’re fun to watch. Every time Michael Kidd-Gilchrist smiles, an angel gets its wings. And oh by the way, they’re also pretty darn good at this whole basketball thing too.
So really, this column isn’t about trying to compare the two programs, or to say that if they played on a neutral court that Syracuse would absolutely, positively win. Nope. What this column is about, is appreciating just what the Orange did on Saturday night, and explaining how it fits into the context of this college basketball season.
Speaking of Saturday night, I’m guessing that a lot of people didn’t see Syracuse’s win through the prism I did. If anything, it just furthered people’s opinions that this team is an escape artist, wins too many close games for anyone’s comfort, and could just as easily be 25-5 on the year as they are 29-1 now.
Frankly, it’s hard to blame those people since in looking at Syracuse’s recent results, it’s staggering how close most of their games have been. Just in the nine games since losing to Notre Dame, Syracuse has seven wins that were decided by 10 points or less. Four of those wins were by three points or less. Heck even their blowouts aren’t quite as one-sided as they seem. For example, a quick look at a box score tells you that the Orange beat UConn by 18 points at home two weeks ago. What the box score doesn’t tell you is that Syracuse led by two points with just six minutes to go.
Still, the Orange are 29-1, and didn’t get those 29 wins by accident. I’ve been watching sports my whole life, and one of the most important lessons I’ve learned through the years is that if a team continually wins close games, at some point it stops being luck, and starts to become a skill.
Well, that’s definitely the case with the Orange, a team that doesn’t make every play all game, but makes the smart, winning plays when the chips are on the line. I first noticed it when Kris Joseph hit dagger after dagger to bury Georgetown in overtime a few weeks ago, and that trend continued with C.J. Fair’s block (which wasn’t a foul, by the way) on Roscoe Smith Saturday night. As a matter of fact, I found it interesting that in his postgame interview with Erin Andrews, Jim Boeheim said what I’ve been thinking for some time now. The direct quote: “Somehow, all year long these guys find a way to win.” I couldn’t agree more.
Of course all that is nice, but it doesn’t definitively tell you why Syracuse is the best team in the country. Then again, you could give me 10,000 words and I might not be able to do that. After all, is saying “Syracuse is definitively better than Kentucky or Carolina” any different than saying “Mila Kunis is definitively hotter than Jessica Alba?” Of course not. They’re both impossible to quantify.
But while I can’t tell you why Syracuse is the best, what I can tell you is what I saw with my own two eyes. And what I saw was a team that not only accepted the challenge of playing in a tough road venue Saturday night, but actually fed off it.
Now before I continue, please understand one thing: My opinion on Syracuse is in no way some twisted attempt by me to justify UConn’s disappointing season. It isn’t. As a UConn fan it pains me to say it but right now, not only are the Huskies not one of the Top 25 teams in college basketball, by most statistical measurements, they’re not Top 50 either. For that reason alone it’s hard to say that Syracuse’s road win at UConn was any more impressive than Duke at North Carolina, Kentucky at Vanderbilt, or maybe even Michigan State at Ohio State.
At the same time, while UConn isn’t an elite team right now, what I can say unequivocally is that on Saturday night Gampel Pavillion was an elite environment. I’ve been to a lot of games at that place, and can honestly tell you that Saturday night was the loudest I’ve ever heard it. Ever. It was the kind of loud that made you scream to the person standing next to you during conversation, and the kind of loud that would give any normal person a headache by sheer proximity. It was the kind of loud that likely shattered car windows a mile away. That was the snake pit that Syracuse walked into Saturday night, and by tip-off I couldn’t fathom any way they didn’t walk out with a loss. That’s not me speaking as a UConn fan; that’s me speaking as a rational thinking person.
Of course for those of you who watched the game, you know that not only was I wrong, but I was wrong in the wrongest way possible. Not only was Syracuse not intimidated by the crowd, but they actually embraced it. They took it as an affront to their manhood, and a personal challenge to shut everyone in the building up (except for the surprising number of Syracuse fans in attendance). And from the start, they basically did exactly that. After missing their first two shots, the Orange made four of their next five, and eventually, led by 14 at halftime.
Now after the half, the tables turned and things tightened up, although that’s not as big a deal to me as it is to most others. Again, Gampel is a tough road venue, and UConn is a tough team. Nobody thought Syracuse was going to win by 14 before the game, and they shouldn’t have at halftime either. If Kansas and Missouri taught us anything Saturday, it’s that when two good teams are on the floor, no lead is safe.
Anyway, as you know, the game eventually got tied up, and the Orange eventually held onto win. But beyond just the victory itself, there was one play that proved to me beyond a reasonable doubt just how tough Syracuse was.
That play came with about five minutes to go, when Dion Waiters drove the lane and tossed up a floater… only to have it rejected by Roscoe Smith.
Well, actually, I take that back. Because while it was called a clean block on the floor, there wasn’t a single person on the Syracuse bench who didn’t think it was goaltending. Believe me, I was sitting parallel to the Syracuse bench…. and everyone- I mean everyone- on that sideline was pissed. And it was right at that moment, that I really did think the Orange were going to melt right in front of our eyes. It’s one thing to have a call go against you, but it’s quite another to have a call go against you on the road, in a tight game which you’ve just blown a 14-point lead. Syracuse was done.
Only they weren’t. The battled back, made plays, held on and found a way to win. As Jim Boeheim said, “Somehow, all year long these guys find a way to win.” They always do.
So what does that mean big picture? Honestly, I’m not sure.
I love college basketball, and have watched long enough to know that there have been a lot of highly ranked teams in late February that don’t make it past the first few weeks of March. Given Syracuse’s proclivity to play close games, they could be one of them. After all, the NCAA Tournament doesn’t reward you for playing close, tight, back-and-forth, one possession ballgames. They reward you for walking into the gym, blowing off the door and advancing to the next round. It only takes one bad foul call or one fluky bounce to swing a game. And when you play games as closely as Syracuse does, that one bad foul call or fluky bounce can cost you a win. And a season.
Still, this isn’t column isn’t about trying to decipher what might happen in two or three weeks, or in a game that hasn’t been played yet. It’s not about trying to project how teams match up in March, or what their downfall might be. It’s not about anything other than giving credit to a team for a gutty win, in a tough venue on Saturday night. It’s about giving credit to the best team that these two eyes have seen in college basketball all season.
That team is Syracuse.
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