Syracuse Orange Face First Road Test Against Florida Gators

Patrick HanlonContributor IDecember 9, 2009

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 19:  Head coach Jim Boeheim of the Syracuse Orange looks on against the California Golden Bears during their semifinal game of the 2K Sports Classic on  November 19, 2009 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

After losing three starters from a squad that made it to the sweet 16 last year, national championship hopes were soon dashed for Syracuse Orange fans. When the Orange lost to division two Le Moyne, fans were left to wonder if they would make the tournament this season.

But now Boehiem’s boys have some quality wins under their belt, and might be making that title run after all. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This game against Florida Thursday will be the biggest test for the Orange so far this season.

Yes, the Orange did defeat California (then ranked in the top 20) and North Carolina then ranked No. 6 in the nation. The UNC win was most impressive as the Orange played lock down defense and put the game out of reach with a 22-1 run midway through the second half. Syracuse looked like men among boys.

But maybe that’s because they were.  After winning the National Championship last season, the Tar Heels will be working many new faces in and out of the lineup this season. That’s not to say they won’t be a contender come tourney time, but for now, they are still going through growing pains.

Florida, on the other hand, is already battle tested. They defeated No. 12 Michigan State on a neutral site last month. They are returning four starters from last season, and are trying to get back to the tournament after a two year hiatus. Thursday’s game would be a reminder to nation that Florida is a basketball school too.

At face value, Syracuse should win this game handily. They are the second highest scoring offense in the nation at just more than 90 points per game. Most thought that the Orange would see a fall in offensive production losing leading scorers Jonny Flynn and Eric Devendorf. But Iowa State transfer Wes Johnson has been a stud so far for ‘Cuse, already garnering comparisons to Carmelo Anthony.

The Orange defense has also been outstanding. In years past Syracuse looked lost in Jim Boehiem’s famous 2-3 zone. But this year, it looks like the Orange finally have the length and intelligence to play sound in D in the zone. They are holding opponents to just 35.5 percent from the field.

So then what scares me about this game? The fact that it’s a game against a ranked opponent on the road. Ok, technically its an neutral site game since it is being played at St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. But that's like saying Syracuse games at MSG are neutral site games.

During the last two seasons, the Orange are just 3-7 against ranked teams on the road. In these games ‘Cuse shoots terribly and turn the ball over more than usual, looking more like my old intramural team than a division 1 program. Despite Eric “8 Mile” Devendorf jaw jocking and chest thumping, Syracuse saw themselves on the wrong side of many of these affairs.

Not to mention the Orange have yet to face a defense like the Gators. Florida is holding their opponents to shoot below 40 percent from the field. They have also allowed only two teams to score more than 60 in their first eight games.

These two programs have combined for three national titles in this decade, but neither has enjoyed the same success in the years following the championships. This year, both teams roll into Tampa with undefeated records, and a statement win on their minds. Although it’s a non-conference game in early December, this one will have the feel of tournament game in late March/early April.

Prediction: Syracuse will play well, but Florida gets all the calls Score: Florida 79, Syracuse 73