Last year the Kansas Jayhawks were crowned national champions. Mario Chalmers hit a game-tying three to send it into overtime—something Kansas wasn't able to do in the 2003 national championship game, when Syracuse's Hakim Warrick blocked a Michael Lee three-point attempt with seconds left.
Kansas played Syracuse for the first time Tuesday night since that game five years ago. This time Kansas came into the game as national champs, but the result of the game was the same.
Syracuse trailed by 13 points in the second half but came back to beat the 23rd-ranked team in America, one night after they defeated the 18th-ranked Florida Gators. That means SU, in two days, beat the teams that won the last three national championships.
Jim Boeheim switched out of his zone defense in the second half, and Syracuse erased the deficit. Jonny Flynn said he liked playing man-to-man and it got them back in the game. Flynn dropped 25 points, including—what do ya know—a game-tying three to force overtime. They were able to pull away in OT and win 89-81.
The frontcourt was absolutely solid—Paul Harris had 14 points and 14 boards, while center Arinze Onuaku finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds. Swingman Eric Devendorf scored 20 and added five assists.
Combine those with Flynn's stats, and both of Syracuse's frontcourt players recorded double-doubles while both backcourt players scored at least 20 points—all coming against the defending national champs.
Yeah, I know, both Florida and Kansas lost a lot of players from last year—the Jayhawks have one returning starter. But these two early wins against ranked opponents out in the Midwest get Syracuse off to a strong start after two disappointing seasons. Give credit to Boeheim for scheduling the non-conference game—it worked out.
It all starts with Jonny Flynn. The sophomore is the best player on the team and has matured from a bumpy freshman campaign. He is lightning-quick, can penetrate, is a good passer, and a strong shooter. Oh, he can also play defense.
With the help of junior guard Eric Devendorf on the wing, a lot of pressure will be taken off Flynn offensively. Both Flynn and Devendorf were McDonald's All-Americans coming out of high school.
Devendorf has successfully recovered from season-ending knee surgery and has played well early. However, he and four other 'Cuse players were accused of assault earlier in the year. A young woman said Devendorf punched her in the face after kicking and damaging her car. Nothing yet is official, but it remains to be seen whether it will be a distraction.
Sharpshooting guard Andy Rautins also returns from a knee injury and has also played well. He will provide a lot of depth in the backcourt and is good for a handful of threes per game.
The frontcourt leans on Arinze Onuaku. The junior is a beast of a man and worked out heavily during the offseason to build even more muscle and burn fat. He's going to be a force in the middle. The only knock on him is that he is a little undersized for a center at 6'9". The matchup of Onuaku and UConn's Hasheem Thabeet will be interesting.
But an extremely important element of the whole Syracuse team is another beast—junior Paul Harris. He was a McDonald's All-American caliber player coming out of high school and is ready to explode onto the scene in 2009.
Harris can absolutely sky—he brings down a lot of boards while only standing at 6'5". He's comparable to UConn's Jeff Adrien and a similar SF/PF type player. Harris has improved his shooting, which, combined with his athleticism, could be extremely dangerous offensively.
Both Onuaku and Harris could average a double-double for the season.
A strong point of this Syracuse team could be its bench. Sophomore bigs Rick Jackson and Shawne Williams will step up defensively while giving the starters some rest. Both players are 6'10" or taller.
Senior forward Kristof Ongenaet adds a little more size and can score if need be.
The freshmen forwards Kris Joseph and Mookie Jones will have an impact on the season. Joseph has already shown some early promise, scoring 10 points against Florida.
The big question mark for SU is its defense. The Orange gave up 83 points to the Gators and 81 to the Jayhawks. The Big East is threatening to be the strongest it has ever been, and if Syracuse moves into the top 25 next week as it should, half of the conference will be nationally ranked. The defense will have to step up if this team wants to go anywhere.
Syracuse might have its best team since that 2003 national championship season and could be an undefeated 11-0 going into a Dec. 20 showdown against Memphis. Their toughest opponent until that contest is Virginia. They will have to rack up as many wins against inferior opponents as possible if they want to survive in the Big East.
SU plays Georgetown, Villanova, and Rutgers twice out of their Big East opponents, so not bad. I expect the Orange to be a factor in the Big East tournament and maybe win a couple games in the NCAAs. But the game all Orange fans have marked down on their calendars is the Feb. 11 matchup in Storrs, CT—against hated rival No. 2 UConn.