Unranked to number one.
Those four words accurately capture what was a special season for Syracuse basketball. Syracuse was mostly written off by coaches and experts alike at the beginning of the season with the loss of four key contributors in the offseason. Syracuse began the season at No. 25 in the coaches poll and unranked in the ESPN/USA Today poll.
After all, it was hard to blame people from the college basketball world. Syracuse rode to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2004 last year, but the losses of Paul Harris, Eric Devendorf and Jonny Flynn figured to cripple what was formally a potent offense. Syracuse was picked to finish sixth in the Big East and other than Arinze Onuaku (who received a preseason Big East Honorable Mention) not a single Orange player received any recognition.
In spite of all of that, the Orange regrouped.
With Wesley Johnson joining the starting lineup, Syracuse had a legitimate star with plenty of complementing parts around him. The emergence of Andy Rautins as an All Big East performer along with Rick Jackson and Onuaku’s steady improvement down low, the Orange rose to No. 1 in the polls, the first time that happened since the 1989-90 season.
Here are some of the key games from the regular season:
November 4, 2009: Le Moyne v. Syracuse
By far the most shocking loss of the season came in a game that didn’t count. Syracuse’s 82-79 loss to Division II Le Moyne was Syracuse’s first exhibition loss in six years, and its most embarrassing.
“It is inexcusable,” Rautins said.
The game made national headlines, which was a bruising start of the season for Syracuse.
Said ESPN analyst Dick Vitale in his blog: “Still, thinking about Le Moyne beating Syracuse, you do have to say, ‘WOW!'”
There were caveats to the loss, of course. Syracuse spent most of its time playing man-to-man defense, and the Dolphins toasted it to the tune of 42 points in the paint.
“We’re concerned about our man-to-man,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “There is really no area that we really couldn’t do something better.”
November 20, 2009: Syracuse v. North Carolina
Sixteen days later, any thought about the loss to Le Moyne was forgotten as then-No. 24 Syracuse stunned then-No. 4 North Carolina in the championship game of the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden. Using a 22-1 run to start the second half, the Orange went on to crush the Tar Heels 87-71, led by Wesley Johnson’s 25 points.
It was a coming out party for Johnson, who had drawn rave reviews from Boeheim and the rest of the Syracuse players, but was otherwise a little known product. The Iowa State transfer torched North Carolina on 10-of-17 shooting from the field, including four 3-pointers.
Said ESPN’s Dana O’Neil: “Some kids might be overwhelmed by the grandiosity of such a stage, but soft-spoken Johnson welcomed the full spotlight.”
The win catapulted Syracuse into basketball’s elite. Syracuse jumped from No. 24 to No. 9 in one of the biggest jumps in the polls in college basketball history.
December 10, 2009: Syracuse v. Florida
In previous years, Syracuse was criticized for playing a soft non-conference schedule. But with wins over California and North Carolina, plus a game against Florida that was played just miles from the Gator’s campus, no one could question the strength of its schedule.
In a battle of the two surprised unbeaten teams of the season, Syracuse easily handled the Gators thanks to Rick Jackson’s career high 21 points and 11 rebounds.
Said Boeheim after the game: “We’ll probably encounter some problems, but right now, we don’t have a lot.”
January 2, 2010: Pittsburgh v. Syracuse
That first problem came against Pittsburgh in the first game of the new decade. Riding a 13-game winning streak, the Orange was stunned at home by the Panthers, who muscled and bullied its way to a 82-72 upset.
The Orange went cold from outside, hitting just 1-of-13 3-pointers. It was a perfect example of how the Orange could be beat – tough physical play on defense and scrappy hustle on loose balls.
“We knew they were going to be physical,” Johnson said. “We just have to play through it. We didn’t do a good job of that today.”
January 25, 2010: Georgetown v. Syracuse
When a team loses just one game, it’s hard to gauge how it responds to adversity. How will it react to slow starts? How tough can they play after being down big?
Well, any fan of the Orange had his question answered in Syracuse’s first game against arch-rival Georgetown.
The stage was set for another fierce battle, as the rivalry that made the Big East saw its two flagship programs ranked in the top 10 for the first time since March of 1990.
No. 7 Georgetown did not disappoint early on as it cruised to a 14-0 lead in the first three minutes. No. 4 Syracuse took it from there, as it used an 18-8 second half run to crush the Hoyas, 73-56.
“We recovered from the worst start I can remember,” Boeheim said. “To dominate a top-10 team after giving them 14 points is quite an effort. That’s as good as we can play.”
February 27, 2010: Villanova v. Syracuse
As memorable as the win over Georgetown was, it is unquestioned what the best win of the season was for Syracuse.
With an NCAA-record 34,616 looking on, No. 4 Syracuse routed No. 7 Villanova, 95-77. Earlier in the day, higher ranked Kansas and Kentucky lost, while the following day, No. 3 Purdue lost, as well.
That opened up the way for Syracuse to ascend to No. 1 in the rankings, which was first No. 1 ranking in the national AP Poll since the 1989-90 season.
“This team has not thought about rankings all year,” Boeheim said. “I told them they needed a short celebration. I’m just trying to get the players focused on the next game. The only thing anybody will remember is the [NCAA] tournament, but I hope the fans enjoyed this team.”
March 6, 2010: Syracuse v. Louisville
Still, the No. 1 ranking was short lived. A week later, Rick Pitino and Louisville upset Syracuse in its final regular season game at Freedom Hall, 78-68. It was the second time that Syracuse had lost to the Cardinals in the season.
It was a down game in an otherwise flawless season for Syracuse.
“I am not surprised that we could do well,” Boeheim said. “We had Wesley (Johnson) to replace Paul (Harris), there was not ground lost. We had Andy (Rautins) to go back into Eric’s (Devendorf) spot. We are not going to score like Johnny (Flynn) scored, but Scoop and Brandon together have done a pretty good job.”
This article appeared in the April 2010 issue of The Juice.