NCAA preview: Syracuse Orange (31-2)
Distractions have been everywhere for Syracuse's basketball program this season, both on the court and off.
Through it all, the Orange simply kept winning.
They won after assistant coach Bernie Fine was fired on Nov. 27 amid child molestation allegations following 36 seasons at Syracuse. He had been the longest tenured assistant at one Division I university.
They won two of three games when star center Fab Melo was ruled academically ineligible at midseason. The Orange relied even more on their vaunted 2-3 zone defense to suffocate opponents.
They won in early March, the same week a report surfaced that at least 10 former Syracuse players participated in games in the past 10 seasons despite failed drug tests.
In a season unlike any in coach Jim Boeheim's 36 years in charge, the Orange still find themselves in a familiar position: among the favorites to win a national championship.
"Nothing bothers us," Boeheim told reporters after Syracuse's quarterfinal victory against Connecticut in the Big East tournament March 8. "We come ready to play. That's what you should do in life. Everybody gets bothered. Everybody has problems."
The success of Syracuse (31-2) this season is based on the team's length defensively and supreme balance offensively. The only three players to have started all 33 games this season — Kris Joseph, Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine — each average fewer points per game this season than they did a year ago.
That kind of unselfishness and willingness to embrace Boeheim's team concept allowed Syracuse to set the school record for most consecutive victories to start a season at 20. The Orange broke the mark on Jan. 16 with a 71-63 victory against Pittsburgh.
The streak came to an end the following game in a stunning 67-58 loss against Notre Dame. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was the first of three games Melo missed due to academic issues.
When Melo returned on Feb. 4, Syracuse once again looked unstoppable. The Orange won 11 consecutive games, the last nine with Melo in the lineup, before a loss to Cincinnati in the Big East tournament semifinal. Syracuse finished an astounding 17-1 in the rugged Big East during regular-season play, clearing every other team by at least three games.
Yes, the Orange have won all season despite a slew of distractions. The only question left is: Can they win six more games in a season unlike any other and deliver Boeheim his second national title?
Why they'll get to New Orleans: Syracuse doesn't have a so-called offensive superstar, but that makes the team even more dangerous, with one of the most balanced scoring units in the entire country. Six players average between 7.8 points and 13.8 points per game, making it hard for opponents to game plan on stopping any specific player.
Why they'll flame out early: Oddly enough, a team that thrives on its patented zone defense struggles offensively against zone defenses. The blueprint for beating the Orange was laid when Cincinnati toppled Syracuse in the Big East tournament with a zone of its own. Syracuse shoots 34.5 percent from 3-point range, which ranks 159th in the country.
Key to their title hopes: Feb Melo must be a force inside. The 7-foot center from Brazil averages just 7.8 points per game, but he doesn't necessarily have to score a ton because he can alter shots defensively on the back line of Syracuse's 2-3 zone. Melo led the Big East in blocks with 88 this season. The nation saw how susceptible the Orange are without Melo, when he missed three games because of academic issues at midseason. Syracuse went 2-1 during that span and didn't win a game by more than seven points.