By SEAN KEELEY
Special to One Great Season
I thought it was a typo when I saw that Syracuse's No. 1 seed is its first since 1980. I was reasonably sure that we had secured a top seed in the early 1990s with one of those Lawrence Moten or Billy Owens teams. I checked and, while those guys had their share of 2 seeds, it was in fact true that it's been 30 years since SU's last appearance at the top of a bracket.
I think it speaks to the Syracuse basketball program's reputation perfectly. SU has almost always been good, sometimes verging on great, but very seldom has it been dominant. So you'll have to excuse Orange fans if they're a little like Corey Feldman in "The Goonies," digging around in the well in search of lost wishes and dreams. We've thrown a lot of coins down that well hoping for an opportunity like this, and now that another title is within reach ... we're taking them back. We're taking them all back.
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Syracuse will win the national championship this year for a multitude of reasons. But those reasons begin and end with the players on the court. Before the season started, Jim Boeheim raved about Wes Johnson, saying he was so good that he'd probably only spend one season wearing Orange. We expected Wes to be good but we didn't know he was going to be this good. What he lacks in pure stats he makes up for in the "Oh My God" factor. As in, at least three times a game, he makes a play that elicits an "Oh My God" reaction from you. Not bad for a guy who's also unselfish to a fault.
Wes was named Big East Player of the Year and to multiple All-American lists but there's one Syracuse player who might even be more important than he is. Senior Andy Rautins came to SU as a scrawny, three-point specialist. He will leave as the team's emotional leader and a complete basketball player. As Andy goes, so go the Orange. If he keeps his head on his shoulders and doesn't fall into a turnover spiral, the Orange can go as far as Andy can take them.
As much as this team has individual talent, it's the way it plays as a singular unit that has made the Orange so successful, especially on defense. Everyone and their mother have raved about how the 2-3 zone is responsible for SU shutting down opponents this season. The only problem is, SU has been playing the 2-3 zone forever, so what's different? The players themselves. This unit is head and shoulders above any SU defensive unit in years. Between having the best frontcourt in years, the athleticism of Johnson and Kris Joseph and underrated work by Rautins, Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine up top, SU might not have the most talent but it has the best guys on the floor for this system.
Helping matters is that the Orange officially have a giant chip affixed to their shoulders again. They ended the season losing two in a row. They've been hearing all week how they shouldn't be a 1 seed or that they're not a lock to make the Final Four like Kansas and Kentucky seem to be. This team plays much better when it has the world working against it. The Orange have something to prove again.
As for their draw? Nothing to sneeze at but nothing to complain about either. As long as Arinze Onuaku is back in some form by the second weekend, the Orange can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the bracket. Though they may be wary of Pittsburgh, who beat up on the zone and the Orange earlier this season, I would imagine they welcome the opportunity to get some revenge as well.
Syracuse has the talent to win it all. It has the system to win it all. It has the coach to win it all. And it has the opportunity to win it all. Now the Orange just have to go do it.