Orange up to No. 5 and brimming with confidence

BY foxsports • December 17, 2009

Jim Boeheim sat at the postgame interview table, his right hand massaging his furrowed brow, as always trying not to sound too optimistic about his good fortune.

``Of all the problems you can have in the world, we don't have a lot right now,'' the Syracuse coach said after last week's 12-point win over then-No. 10 Florida. ``We'll probably encounter some problems, but right now we don't have a lot.''

Unranked and not on the radar of most preseason prognosticators, Syracuse has stormed into the national spotlight with a stunning run of early season success.

The Orange moved up two spots in this week's AP Top 25 to No. 5 and are 10-0, the 12th time they've begun a season with at least 10 straight wins since Boeheim became head coach in 1976. Thus far, Syracuse has beaten two teams ranked in the top 10 - they also humbled then-No. 6 North Carolina 87-71 with a 22-1 second-half surge - as well as California, which was ranked 13th until getting beaten 95-73 in the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden.

Boeheim, often criticized for playing most of the pre-conference schedule inside New York state, isn't hearing gripes this year. Probably because Syracuse is performing so well in almost every phase of the game, averaging 88.3 points without its top three scorers from last season. Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf all departed despite at least one remaining year of college eligibility (two for Flynn).

``We're a very confident team,'' said guard Andy Rautins, one of two fifth-year seniors in a lineup that has fans dreaming of another national championship to go with the first title from 2003. ``We still go out every game like we have something to prove.''

That's not just a sound bite.


- In the first five games of the season, a different player was high scorer each game: center Arinze Onuaku (the other fifth-year senior), Rautins, sophomore guard Scoop Jardine, junior transfer Wes Johnson, and freshman guard Brandon Triche. Junior forward Rick Jackson added his name to the list with a career-high 19 points in the win over the Gators in Tampa, Fla.

- In four games, five players have reached double figures.

- Jackson also had a career-high 11 rebounds against Florida and Johnson, the team's leading scorer at 16.5 ppg, and Kris Joseph also registered double-doubles in the game.

- Syracuse leads the nation in assists, averaging 23.1 per game. The Orange also lead the nation in field-goal percentage (55.2 percent) and steals average (14.0).

``Very unselfish, looking for each other,'' Boeheim said. ``We've played well together.''

So far, the Orange remain on an even keel, with mostly smiles dominating the faces of those on the court or watching from the bench. Dreams of March and the NCAA tournament are an afterthought for now, even though Gerry McNamara, a key member of that first national championship team, is a constant reminder in his role this season as a graduate assistant.

``We keep telling each other that's how we want to approach the games, like we're not even ranked, thinking we're the underdogs in every game,'' said Joseph, who's averaging 9.5 points and 5.5 rebounds as a top reserve along with Jardine (6.2 assists and 2.7 turnovers per game). ``I think that's going to motivate us to keep playing well.''

With two games until the grueling Big East schedule begins, the only blip on the Orange's radar is one that is commonplace - the lack of playing time on a bench that has been nine and 10 deep in games the Orange have dominated early.

Redshirt freshman Mookie Jones has been the only one to publicly display any dissatisfaction. Jones briefly went to the locker room late in the Orange's 88-73 victory over Cornell two days before Thanksgiving, disgruntled that he didn't play against the two-time defending Ivy League champ.

The 6-foot-6 Jones, a star in high school in Peekskill, N.Y., played nine games last season before a hip injury sidelined him for the remainder of the year. He received a medical hardship waiver, returned with renewed enthusiasm and has played in eight games.

Jones sits third on the team in 3-pointers made (17 of 36), behind Rautins (26 of 56) and Johnson (20 of 37).

However, Jones played a total of 10 minutes against California and North Carolina and did not play against Florida.

Jones is keeping a stiff upper lip in spite of obvious disappointment.

``I wish I knew my role,'' Jones said after scoring 10 points in 21 minutes in Sunday's win over St. Francis of New York, the fourth straight time he's reached double figures. ``As long as I work hard, it's up to the boss (Boeheim). I love being here. I want to play here.

``I'll just keep working hard, that's the only thing I can do. I can't force coach.''

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