Syracuse began the season unranked in The Associated Press poll. Two weeks into the season, the Orange have risen to 10th. That causes Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, the man with the perpetual pained expression, to crack a joke.
“I hope the voters are right this time and not the last time,” Boeheim said.
It was certainly understandable to expect Syracuse to have a bit of a down season after losing three starters from a team that went 28-10 and reached the Sweet 16 last season. A loss to Division II LeMoyne in an exhibition game on Nov. 3 reinforced the idea that this would be a rebuilding year.
Yet, the Orange have vaulted into the rankings on the strength of a 5-0 start that includes victories over Pacific-10 Conference favorite California and defending national champion and Atlantic Coast Conference favorite North Carolina on back-to-back nights last week in the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden.
Boeheim, though, is his typical pragmatic self.
“Anytime you beat North Carolina, it’s a good win,” Boeheim said. “North Carolina has a good team but it’s a young team still trying to straighten some things out. It’s not like beating them last year. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re just getting started.”
Syracuse’s two returning starters, both seniors, have been steady as center Arinze Onuaku is averaging 12.4 points, 3.6 rebounds, 0.8 assists and 23.4 minutes a game and guard Andy Rautins has a 11.8/3.0/4.4/26.0 line. The difference maker for the Orange has been junior forward Wesley Johnson, a transfer from Iowa State, with 16.8/8.0/2.0/33.0 averages.
“He’s gotten better since he’s been here,” Boeheim said of Johnson. “He’s a hard worker. He understands the game. He has a good feel for the game of basketball. Everybody on the team respects him and realizes the things he can do.”
Freshman guard Brandon Triche has made an immediate impact with 12.2/2.2/2.8/22.2 numbers and sophomore guard Scoop Jardine has bounced back after taking a redshirt last season because of a stress fracture in his leg to post a 10.0/1.8/5.2/1.6 line as the sixth man.
“It’s really good having Scoop back,” Boeheim said. “He has made some changes to his game. His shooting is better. He is active on defense. He is pushing the ball down the court for us. He’s off to a great start. It’s great to have a player like him to come off the bench and I really like the overall depth we have on this team. We only have one guy playing 30 minutes and last year we had guys playing 35, 36 minutes a game.”
Syracuse is also playing very good defense. Their 76.5 adjusted defensive efficiency rating is 12th in the nation.
“I think part of our defense is just the physical attributes of our players,” Boeheim said. “We’re bigger and that helps our zone. We’re bigger at the guard spots and we’re five inches bigger at Wesley Johnson’s small forward spot. I think there was a misconception last year that we didn’t play good defense. We were a good defensive team.”
The numbers bear Boeheim out as the Orange ranked 29th in ADE last season with a 91.7, though it was overshadowed by a 117.3 adjusted offensive efficiency that was 11th.
“The key to playing good defense is always hard work,” Boeheim said. “This group works very hard and wants to get better. We’re off to a good start but we’ve just got to keep our heads down and keep playing.”
Varnado Breaks SEC Block Record
It hasn’t been the best of starts for Mississippi State as they lost by 14 points to Rider at home on opening night and are still waiting for the NCAA to resolve the eligibility status of highly regarded freshman forward Renardo Sidney.
However, senior center Jarvis Varnado gave the Bulldogs something to celebrate last Saturday night when he became the Southeastern Conference’s all-time leading shot blocker when he had four rejections in a victory over Bethune-Cookman. Varnado’s 413th block enabled him to pass former Louisiana State star Shaquille O’Neal.
“It’s an honor just being mentioned with Shaquille and breaking the record is a huge honor,” Varnado said. “I just thank God for it. Now that it’s over, I can just move past it and worry about trying to win games. It was getting tiresome with people asking me if I had broken the record yet. Now it is over and done with and we can focus on winning more games.”
Mississippi State has bounced back to win its last three games since the loss to Rider, posting victories over cupcakes Southeastern Louisiana, Bethune-Cookman and Texas-Pan American.
Meanwhile, Varnado can now set his sights on the NCAA record for blocked shots, 535 by former Louisiana-Monroe star Wojciech Mydra.
“I have a lot more to go to reach that one,” Varnado said.
UNLV Among Early Pomeroy Leaders
Yes, the sample size is still too small for the Pomeroy Rankings to mean much at this point in the season. Still, it is fun to take a peek at them and see what unexpected teams are ranked high.
Last week at this time, St. Peter’s held the unlikely No. 4 spot. This week, it is Nevada-Las Vegas at No. 4. While the Runnin’ Rebels aren’t as big of a surprise as the Peacocks, they are certainly doing a good job of answering some questions that surrounded them coming into the season.
UNLV failed to make it to the NCAA Tournament last season after cracking the field of 65 the previous two years. The Rebels lost to Kentucky in the first round of the NIT to conclude a 21-11 season that included seven losses in the last 11 games.
UNLV is 3-0 this season. Though the victories have only been against Division II Pittsburg State, Nevada and Southern Illinois, junior guard Tre’Von Willis told the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Matt Youmans that the Rebels have a different feeling this season.
“All I can say for last year's team is we weren't pushing ourselves,” Willis said. “We didn't have the focus every day to become a better team. I feel some of the guys who are returning, we learned our lesson. We've got to have 100-percent focus every day. We know the teams that normally go deep into the NCAA Tournament are the teams that want to be great and that starts in practice."
Willis is the only UNLV player scoring in double figures on a team in which six of the top 11 players are newcomers as he has a 16.7/5.3/3.0/21.0 line.
Capel Returns to Richmond
When Jeff Capel left Virginia Commonwealth to become the coach at Oklahoma three years ago, he was asked for one favor. VCU officials wanted the Sooners to make a visit to Richmond at some point.
Oklahoma paid its visit to Siegel Center last Saturday night and the 17th-ranked Sooners were upset 82-69. It was the first time the Rams had ever played a ranked team on their home floor.
“I think it's really big,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “We showed we have the ability to play with most anyone in the country. The guys on our team don't have to take a backseat to anybody.”
Capel knew he was going into a situation that was ripe for an upset but was not upset about losing to the school that gave him his first head coaching job at 27.
“This was a great game for us,” Capel said. “Great environment. Personally, it was really good to be back and see some people. Certainly I don't like the result but this game will help us. I knew coming in we weren't as good as everyone had us. I know we're a work in progress but I think we're going to be good.”
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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