Syracuse dominated in two consecutive nights at the Garden with blowouts of two teams ranked in the top 12, but its Coaches vs. Cancer title game win was far more impressive than the lopsided victory over Cal, and it could point to something special about this Cuse team that was missing from last season's Sweet 16 version.
I took plenty of flak for what I wrote about Syracuse on Friday morning. It wasn't that I thought the Orange weren't any good Thursday night as I took in the game courtside. It was more my lack of excitement at their shoddy execution of the zone at times, their big men not truly playing "all out" and the sheer mismatch of talent with an inferior team that was hobbled and overhyped. Beating Carolina, an extremely young team that has a major flaw of poor guard play and zero guard depth, was far more impressive. Here's why.
Jim Boeheim was dialed in to win and his team responded. The Hall of Famer trimmed his bench, played Andy Rautins and Wesley Johnson all but seven minutes and coached as if it was the national title game.
While you can at times be critical of how Syracuse lets its guys play through mistakes, it works for this team more so due to the makeup of the roster. Though Rautins and Brandon Triche had nine combined turnovers against UNC, Boeheim seems to be able to get them to make up for it on the defensive end. While Roy Williams was running guys in and out of the game, Boeheim seemed far more comfortable knowing what he wanted and what he would receive from his group on the floor.
Syracuse's big men were alive and alert along the baseline, specifically in the second half, when they trapped without fouling in the "short corner." There are times when Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson have simply stood flat-footed and played "hands up Harry." Friday night was not one of those times.
The length of Syracuse is far more profound this season than at any point during the Jonny Flynn era for the obvious reason of his size. More importantly, there was an attention to detail against the Heels from a team that has been hit-or-miss in the zone in the past. Rautins and Johnson are both very smart in how they read shooters and non-shooters as they catch the ball. Rautins' seven steals demoralized the Tar Heels.
Offensively, the Orange played to their strengths and looked like a polished team. While their sets are fairly simple, their spacing was outstanding, their shot selection was solid for the most part and their guards took shots they could make. Kris Joseph gives SU a gunner off the bench and Triche looked far more polished than his sophomore opponent, Larry Drew II. Triche is not explosive, but he is fast with the ball, has a strong body and, like Rautins and Johnson, is much more disciplined in defensive technique than Flynn. That kid has been coached well.
So does this impressive MSG performance mean Syracuse is the new Big East favorite? Well, UConn struggles to shoot and has no big men at the level of the Orange. Nova still seems to be searching for what it lost in Dante Cunningham. Georgetown has three good players, but unless the Hoyas bore opponents to death, they are not winning the Big East. Louisville was really impressive against an undermanned Arkansas team, but no one can trust Edgar Sosa to be consistent yet. Pitt is missing its top two guards and the Panthers are down anyway. WVU has two great wings, but without Alex Ruoff, can the Mountaineers shoot? And how good is their point guard play?
So the more you watch Syracuse -- and the more you think about the Big East big picture -- the more you buy in to the Orange. Maybe, just maybe, they are the best team in the conference.
As we take a breath and realize that these were indeed two "home" games, against two teams that could and should look very different come March, there is still no way not to be impressed by Syracuse's two-day performance. Gone are the "look at me" tactics and shenanigans of Eric Devendorf. Gone are the ever-frustrating and tantalizing athletic gifts of Paul Harris. Gone (regrettably) is the smile and big-play ability of Jonny Flynn. But they are replaced by a more blue-collar, defensive-oriented, ego-less cast that may in fact prove to be more successful.
Here are 10 more things I took away from two nights at the Garden:
1. Wesley Johnson is the real deal. Though he is not a break-you-down ball handler, he does have a couple of solid dribble moves to get to the basket. Johnson is "NBA long," has improved his jumper steadily over the past few years and is a legit threat for Big East Player of the Year. Rarely are transfers as good as advertised, but those of us who knew him as a lightly recruited prep school stud are not surprised. Johnson's only flaw is a tendency to take long, contested jumpers, but he makes up for it with really good fundamentals and consistent work ethic on the boards and on defense.
2. Roy Williams cost his team any real shot at competing by yanking Larry Drew early in the second half. Lost in the midst of a 22-1 run to begin the half was Williams' taking out his only real point guard and laying into him a bit on the bench. Additionally, Williams chose not to call a timeout and his team was left helpless with Will Graves hoisting a pair of bad shots and Dexter Strickland looking overwhelmed at the prospect of dissecting the Cuse zone. The game means little in the long run for UNC, but it got away from the Heels in a hurry with Drew on the bench.
3. Andy Rautins' lack of ego is the difference so far. Rautins had seven steals, took good shots and was constantly hugging and encouraging his big men during the breaks. While Johnson is the star in terms of talent, Rautins seems to have everyone's respect and is using his powers for good, not evil.
4. Evan Turner has the attention of everyone at this and the next level. Though he is not a point guard, his passing and ballhandling continue to impress, as does his ability to use his body and strength. OSU is a B.J. Mullens (or a Jared Sullinger) away from competing for a Big Ten title. Might Turner stay one more year and wait for that No. 2 recruiting class to arrive? He could have been a lottery pick this summer, but you never know. Let's just say that stranger things have happened. One side note: Mullen has yet to play a minute in the NBA.
5. Cal is in for a long month or two if Theo Robertson does not play. With trips to Kansas, New Mexico, Pacific and a big home game against Iowa State, Robertson and Harper Kamp need to be in uniform for the preseason Pac-10 favorite to have any sort of decent out-of-conference showing.
6. Duke is the favorite in the ACC. While the Blue Devils lack depth in their backcourt, there is simply no comparison between Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer, Andre Dawkins and Kyle Singler and what UNC is throwing out there right now. Syracuse would have made a lot of teams look inept Friday night, but Strickland, Graves, Drew, Leslie McDonald and Marcus Ginyard are just not elite-level ACC players.
7. Jerome Randle might have the most range for a small guard since Michael Adams. His ball barely spins, but it is soft and he is comfortable three steps behind the NBA line.
8. John Henson has no position. He is not a 3 and simply could not play the 4. But when you look at his body next to Wesley Johnson, you realize what he will look like in four years. If Carolina and its players have patience, the next couple of years will be special.
9. William Buford and Kris Joseph might have been the two most offensive-minded players in the gym during these two nights. Whether it is their established role or simply the role they want to establish, each is looking to shoot nearly every time they touch the ball.
10. While St. John's might not be up to the task and the Knicks are an unmitigated disaster, it is obvious that New York City is dying for some good basketball. With many of the top 15 teams in the country set to stop by throughout the season, the fantastic showing in terms of attendance and the atmosphere this week was a sign bigger than the LeBron billboard outside the Garden. It was a sign that hoops is still very much welcome in the city that never sleeps.
Doug Gottlieb is a college basketball analyst for ESPN and a contributor to ESPN.com. "The Doug Gottlieb Show" can be heard weekdays from 4 to 7 p.m. ET on ESPN Radio and ESPNRadio.com.