All week before Syracuse's showdown with No. 10 Florida in Tampa last Thursday, fifth-year senior Andy Rautins was in his teammates' faces, reminding them that despite routs of two ranked teams (first Cal, then North Carolina) and a rapid rise from unranked before the season to No. 7, the Orange still had much to prove. To punctuate the point, he gathered the team before the game—"Think [Saints quarterback] Drew Brees yelling in the huddle," says junior forward Wes Johnson—and shouted, "Let's play like we still want national attention!"
And so the Orange did, beating the previously undefeated Gators 85--73 and cementing its place as the biggest surprise of the early season. On Sunday, Syracuse beat St. Francis (N.Y.) 75--51 to improve to 10--0, the Orange's best start in seven years. Clearly, losing the top three scorers (guards Jonny Flynn and Eric Devendorf and forward Paul Harris, who all left early for the pros) from last year's 28--10 squad has not been the calamity many predicted. Indeed, their replacements have made Syracuse a bigger and better team. "We were a good offensive team last year," says coach Jim Boeheim, "but we couldn't stop the good teams."
The Orange's 2--3 zone, which now goes 6'4" and 6'4" at the guard spots and 6'7", 6'9" and 6'9" in the frontcourt, is as disruptive as it has been in years, blocking an average of 8.0 shots and making 14.0 steals per game at week's end while holding opponents to just 61.7 points and 35.7% shooting. It's not just the added size, says Johnson, a transfer from Iowa State who through Sunday led the team with 16.5 points and 7.7 rebounds a game. "We're more committed on defense," he says. "We set a tone on defense and let it feed into our offense."
So far that offense has been more unselfish (23.1 assists a game at week's end, against 15.7 turnovers), efficient (55.2% shooting) and prolific (88.3 points per game) than the Orange of a year ago. Its continued high performance owes a lot to the 6'7" Johnson (59.4% from the field and 54.1% from the arc), and two other players who didn't see a minute of action last year. While sharing time at the point guard spot vacated by Flynn, 6'4" freshman Brandon Triche and 6'2" redshirt sophomore Scoop Jardine (who sat out last year with a stress fracture in his left shin) had through Sunday combined to average 18.6 points and 9.2 assists a game.
Florida coach Billy Donovan has already deemed Syracuse "capable of winning a national championship," but Boeheim cautions that it's way too early to make any judgments, especially when the Orange has yet to embark on its brutal Big East schedule. "I've never thought [that because] a team was good in December, it [had] the answers," he says.
His players seem to agree. "We still have a lot of work to do," says Rautins. "We'll have something to prove every single game."
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Photograph by GREG NELSON
ZONED IN Johnson (4) and forward Rick Jackson (00) of the Orange put the squeeze on Chandler Parsons last Saturday in dealing Florida its first defeat.