9:22 am Dec. 8, 2010
Just nine months ago, the Syracuse Orange basketball team entered Madison Square Garden looking like the favorite to win the 2010 NCAA Tournament. With the No. 1 seed in the Big East Tournament and a balanced team led by small forward Wesley Johnson, shooting guard Andy Rautins and center Arinze Onuaku, the Orange appeared poised to at least challenge for coach Jim Boeheim's second title.
But in their opening-round Big East Tournament game, Onuaku crashed to the floor with a knee injury that ended his season. Georgetown eliminated them from the tournament. And without a starting center, Syracuse fell to eventual runner-up Butler in the Sweet 16 of the NCAAs.
A very different Syracuse team experienced very different results Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, dismantling a highly-ranked Michigan State team, 72-58, before a sellout crowd of 19,391 that made the night a virtual home game for the Orange.
"We like to play here, we always have," Boeheim said in a press conference following the game, in response to a question about last year's disappointment. "It's a great place to play and we've had great success here for a long time."
That is an understatement. Syracuse has captured five Big East Tournament titles, including four at Madison Square Garden—all won by Boeheim. With travel prohibitively far for fans of the other three teams on the docket—not to mention a huge contingent of Syracuse grads in the city—the night took on the feel of a frat party.
That game was the nightcap for the Jimmy V Classic, an annual college basketball doubleheader whose proceeds go to the Jimmy V Foundation for cancer research. In the early game, Kansas defeated Memphis, 81-68.
But the stands were largely empty for the undercard, itself a matchup of two highly-ranked teams. A Kansas fan was overheard taunting Memphis for the scandal involving former Tiger Derrick Rose and an invalidated S.A.T. test. The Memphis fan replied, “That was two years ago!” But neither one seemed particularly engaged by the banter, as if they, too, were waiting for the same game as the orange-clad thousands milling around M.S.G.'s byways.
But it is worth noting that the most popular jersey by far is still that of Carmelo Anthony—the star of Syracuse's only national championship team, back in 2003.
This season's star appears to be Rick Jackson, a brawny power forward who teamed with Onuaku on the interior for the past few years. Now, with only a pair of freshmen projects, Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita to support him at center, Jackson has made a point of capturing almost every rebound he can. Twenty-five pounds lighter, Jackson is averaging 12.4 rebounds this season, and grabbed 16 against Michigan State. His per-game average is more than what he and Onuaku combined for last season.
“He's been tremendous,” Boeheim said of Jackson. “He's been steady, stable every game for us. We're very erratic at all the other positions, but he's been very good for us.”
With Onuaku, Johnson and Rautins all gone, the other star for Syracuse is that stalwart that never graduates—their 2-3 zone defense. Michigan State actually jumped out to a 5-2 lead on a pair of easy shots, and Boeheim quickly called a timeout. Shortly thereafter, the 2-3 went into effect, and despite the team’s youth and relative inexperience, Boeheim had them playing the complicated defense extremely well.
“I think, the first half especially, we played as well defensively as we can play,” Boeheim said.
It's hard to argue the point—Syracuse forced 17 Michigan State turnovers, held the Spartans to just 38.9 percent shooting, and forced a shocking number of air balls—all this from the eighth-ranked team in the nation, per ESPN's poll. But Boeheim, ever the half-empty coach, worried about his team's offense.
“I don't think we're playing as well as we can play,” Boeheim said. “I don't think we've played really well offensively yet. I think we can get there. I think … we can get there. We're not there yet, but nobody is. It's early.”
The differences between last year's and this year's edition couldn't have been clearer than when the Orange forced several turnovers in a row, utilized deft interior passing and took a 19-12 lead into the under-12 timeout in the first half. At that point, the scoreboard flashed on Andy Rautins, now a member of the New York Knicks, at M.S.G. to cheer on his alma mater.
Rautins is in the N.B.A. largely due to his three-point shooting. He shot nearly 41 percent from three-point range in his final season with Syracuse last season, and the team shot an incredible 39.1 percent from long distance. This year's Syracuse is shooting just over 29 percent from three, and destroyed Michigan State while hitting on just 2-of-11 from three.
“We have no other choice,” Boeheim said, in response to a reporter’s question about this year’s different approach. “That doesn't take a lot of brain power. My 12-year-old told me that.”
But a rebounder like Jackson makes up for many missed shots, as does a defense that forces so many turnovers. Whether the Orange can get to the basket so easily in the notoriously physical Big East is a different question, but even the conference itself seems tailored to the team's advantage; few teams have elite interior presences this year to counter the Syracuse attack. The question is whether the guard-heavy Big East can produce enough shooters to neutralize the Syracuse zone.
Last night, Michigan State would periodically cut into the Syracuse lead when the Orange let their inexperience show, but the Spartans never really challenged, and the party mellowed accordingly. The Orange fans mostly stuck around to the end, rising and cheering Michigan State’s sporting decision not to prolong the game with fouls.
As Jim Boeheim walked across the Madison Square Garden court he knows so well, preparing to give reporters the same cranky answers he had for decades, the Orange crowd spilled into the blustery night. Outside a nearby bar, a sandwich board listed specials, topped by the words, “Welcome Syracuse.”