Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim has guided four of his teams to the Final Four, but never two in the same decade.
That may change this year.
The No. 2 Orange beat back No. 22 Pittsburgh (16-2, 4-1 ACC) in a 59-54 dogfight at the Carrier Dome and in doing so, established themselves as the odds-on favorite to win the ACC crown.
Syracuse (18-0, 5-0) used its usual brand of by-any-means-necessary basketball to overcome Jamie Dixon’s Panthers. Dixon came into the game with a 10-4 record against Boeheim’s Orange, which included a 5-1 record at the Carrier Dome.
Freshman sensation Tyler Ennis put the Orange on his back in the final two minutes of the game with two drives to the basket and two free throws, which accounted for six of Syracuse’s final eight points.
"He made some of the best plays that I've seen in a long time," Boeheim said after the win, via CBSSports.com.
Rakeem Christmas, who played a fantastic game, put the contest out of reach with two free throws in the closing seconds. Christmas, who is oft-criticized for lack of aggressive play, made all four of his attempts from the field, grabbed four rebounds, blocked three shots and even stole two balls.
As they have done all season, the Orange showed an ability to excel in each facet of the game as was necessitated by the situation.
When they needed baskets as the shot clock ran down, Ennis was there to save them.
When they needed to turn up the defensive intensity, Trevor Cooney was there to outhustle the Panthers for a loose ball.
In fact, when the Panthers took a 49-48 lead on a Lamar Patterson three-pointer with 6:02 left in the game, the entire roster clamped down and didn’t allow Pitt another field goal for the duration of the game.
And that’s the recipe of the Orange this season. Timely baskets and defensive pressure mixed with an even blend of senior leadership and indefatigable youth, coached well and feeds five.
Even the way they win exhibits balance. The Orange have won five games by 20 or more, six games in the teens and seven games by 10 or less. This variety illustrates the Orange’s ability to put teams away when possible, hold leads late and keep their cool when games are close.
Most importantly, the Orange defense looks more suffocating than it did last season, when Syracuse made a run to the Final Four. Going into the 2013 Big East tournament, the Orange lost four of their last five games and could not find a way to score.
The icing on the cake was when Georgetown, in the last regular-season game the Orange would ever play in the Big East, held Syracuse to 39 points.
A few days later, rather than stick their tails between their legs, the Orange decided they had a little fight left in them and turned to their bread and butter, the 2-3 zone.
The Orange defeated Seton Hall, 75-63, in the opener of the Big East tournament. Those 63 points scored by the Pirates were the most any team would score on Syracuse for the remainder of the season, save for the 78-61 loss to Louisville in the Big East final.
In the NCAA tournament, the Orange held opponents to 48.8 points per game, and had it not been for a questionable charge call against Brandon Triche in the Final Four, Syracuse could have had a chance at redemption against its former and soon-to-be conference mate, Louisville.
The lesson of last season hasn’t been lost on this year’s team.
The Orange are allowing only 58.2 points per game, which is already lower than last season’s mark of 58.7. Furthermore, Syracuse hasn’t allowed a 60-point performance by an opponent since Villanova scored 62 in a 16-point victory over the Wildcats on Dec. 28.
Ennis’ steadiness, C.J. Fair’s smoothness and Jerami Grant’s athleticism are enough to take any team on a deep run in the tournament. Those factors, combined with a 2-3 zone that keeps getting better, have the Orange looking like championship contenders.
The beauty of this year’s Orange team is that a win doesn't require each of those factors to work in tandem. As ESPN's Myron Medcalf noted, "Boeheim has everything for an ACC and national title run."
Whether it’s Trevor Cooney’s outside game, Rakeem Christmas’ defense or any of the other points listed, when Syracuse needs a jolt in a particular area of play, the call is always answered.
And that is what gives this team the look of a champion.