Top-ranked Syracuse ready for Seton Hall

A year ago Seton Hall entered the Carrier Dome with a losing

record and stunned the hometown faithful with a flurry of

3-pointers in a 22-point victory over Syracuse.

The teams meet again Wednesday night under the Teflon roof in

their Big East opener, and it’s no surprise the unbeaten Orange,

the top-ranked team in the nation, are a bit wary. The Pirates

(11-1) have won eight in a row and are off to their best start

since the 1992-93 season, when they won the conference

championship. Seton Hall’s lone loss was 80-73 to Northwestern in

the championship game of the Charleston Classic in November.

”They are playing great,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said.

”They are in the top 10 (seventh) in the RPI. They came in here

and beat us last year. They have a very good team, and it will be a

challenge opening the Big East.”

It’s a challenge Syracuse (13-0) seems more than ready for. The

Orange are ranked No. 1 for the third straight week, receiving 54

first-place votes in the AP’s 65-member media poll.

Despite the distraction of the sexual abuse case that led to the

firing of longtime assistant Bernie Fine last month and a

subsequent defamation lawsuit filed against Boeheim and the

university by two former team ball boys, the Hall of Fame coach has

kept his team focused on basketball.

”For us, it’s just about staying level-headed,” fifth-year

senior Scoop Jardine said. ”We want to just stay motivated and

continue to try to win every game. We know we have a good Seton

Hall team coming in here. We just have to stay level-headed, keep

grinding.”

Seton Hall is led by Herb Pope, who is averaging 20.3 points and

11.4 rebounds and has managed to stay out of foul trouble for most

of the season. He has a solid supporting cast in Jordan Theodore

(15.8 points per game and tied for fourth nationally with 7.4

assists per game), Fuquan Edwin (14 ppg and leads the nation in

steals with 3.3 per game), and Patrik Auda (9.4 ppg), while Aaron

Cosby is 23 of 55 on 3-pointers (41 percent).

Still, coach Kevin Willard’s five freshmen promise to have a

steep learning curve in the Big East beginning with the imposing

Orange. Syracuse is unbeaten at this juncture of the season for the

third straight year. The Orange have posted close victories over

11th-ranked Florida (72-68) at home, and Virginia Tech (69-58) and

Stanford (69-63) in capturing the NIT Season Tip-off at Madison

Square Garden. They also have a convincing triumph over North

Carolina State (88-72) in their lone true road game of the season

to date.

With 10 players averaging at least 12 minutes and none more than

senior Kris Joseph’s 29.8 per game, Boeheim has a luxury he’s

rarely had in his 35-plus seasons at the helm – impressive depth

and impressive length at every position among both starters and

reserves. By comparison, four Seton Hall players are averaging 30

or more minutes.

All those fresh bodies have helped Syracuse pace the nation in

steals with 11.2 per game. The Orange also have a turnover margin

of plus-7.8 and average seven blocks and 7.4 made 3-pointers.

Syracuse has won its last two games by the same score – 80-61

over Bucknell and Tulane – and the Orange have shown a remarkable

ability to score lots of points in bunches. They ran off 23

straight against the Wolfpack and 19 in a row against the Green

Wave, runs that featured waves of 3-pointers – eight in the first

half against North Carolina State and five by three different

players in the final 6 minutes of the opening period against

Tulane.

Boeheim has downplayed the significance of that, even though his

team has hit 96 of 257 (37.4 percent) from beyond the arc and each

of the Orange’s top five scorers has converted at least 10.

”I think it is the game. That is just the game of basketball,

not this team,” Boeheim said after the victory over Tulane on

Thursday night. ”Every game of basketball is pretty much a game of

runs. You get a run, and that is what I pretty much think it has

always been.”

The Orange have two freshmen who are about to receive another

first-year indoctrination. Rakeem Christmas and Michael

Carter-Williams already know the difference between high school and

college. Now, they’re about to get a taste of what it’s like to

play in perhaps the most rugged conference in the nation.

”We’re real excited now,” Carter-Williams said. ”I mean, it’s

going to be great. We’re going to have a fun time, and we’re going

in on top, so we want to stay there.”

Joseph, the team’s leading scorer at 14.5 points per game, just

wants his teammates to remain on an even keel – forget all the talk

swirling around about being No. 1.

”We haven’t thought about it at all since gaining that

ranking,” Joseph said. ”As a team, we don’t think about it. We

just go out as a team and play basketball.

”This (the Big East) is what we’ve been prepping for,” he

said. ”For the younger guys, they don’t really know what the Big

East is like, but they’ll learn soon enough. As far as us, as

leaders, we just have to prepare to win because we know what it’s

going to be like.”