SYRACUSE, N.Y.—Three teams in orange combined to create a perfect storm that will give Syracuse a legitimate shot to ascend to the top spot in the national rankings.
Tennessee and Oklahoma State both took care of Kentucky and Kansas fairly easily during the day on Saturday. At night, the 'Cuse put on a show never seen in college basketball.
In front of the largest on-campus crowd in college basketball history, the Orange blasted Villanova for perhaps Syracuse's most emphatic statement win of the season.
The blowout loss prompted Wildcat coach Jay Wright to give the Orange high praise.
"They [Syracuse] are the best. No disrespect to Kansas and Kentucky who might be as good as them, but if you watch what those teams did today and what Syracuse did today, I think Syracuse is the best. They are playing the best."
So what does being No. 1 mean to the Syracuse players?
WJPZ 89.1 FM's Aneesh Saxena reported that earlier in the season when the Orange was rising rapidly through the rankings, senior Andy Rautins walked over to P.A. announcer Mike Veley. Rautins asked Veley to not introduce the Orange as the "insert-ranking here" Syracuse Orange. The players didn't want people to define this team by its ranking.
Veley agreed and not once has Syracuse's ranking been mentioned when the Orange is introduced each game.
Coach Jim Boeheim echoed Andy Rautins' message following the 95-77 victory over the eighth ranked Wildcats.
"Whatever happens happens. This team has never thought for a minute this year whether we are ranked or not ranked or where our ranking is. They have just played basketball all year. I just told them in there that they need to have a very short celebration, a very short one."
The players do bring away something from Jay Wright's evaluation of SU as the nation's best team.
"It's a good feeling, but it's not something we are going to focus on because we don't want to get sidetracked," forward Kris Joesph said.
"We're proud of it," Wes Johnson said. "We've come a long way. A lot of people didn't have a lot of expectations for us this season. For us to be where we are at this point of the season and for people to saying that, it means a lot to us."
What the players recognize can be found at the end of Johnson's statement when he says, "at this point of the season."
It doesn't matter to them if they are No. 1 at this point of the season. What matters is in April in Indianapolis.
Boeheim illustrated that point quite well.
"If this was football, I'd be very happy right now. We would have to hold on for a few more games and we'd be in the National Championship game."
Outside the discussion of being No. 1, the talk after each game almost gets annoyingly repetitive. Win, loss, blowout, or squeaker the message the players convey is "we must keep improving."
While the players identify with assistant coach Rob Murphy's rap song, "Shut It Down" as the theme of this team, the real theme is constant improvement.
No performance is ever good enough for this group of players.
Unless of course Syracuse wins a national title.
That might just be good enough.
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