For the third straight season, the Syracuse Orange are exceeding early-season expectations and have quickly played their way into the Final Four contender talk.
The "what could be" banter grew a bit more Sunday when the Orange were able to hold off a feisty St. John's Red Storm squad, 68-63, on the road, while during the weekend other Final Four contenders -- No. 1-ranked Arizona Wildcats nearly lost to host Michigan Wolverines (72-70), the North Carolina Tar Heels upset the Kentucky Wildcats, 82-77, and the Michigan St. Spartans continued to struggle as they edged the 2-9 Oakland Golden Grizzlies, 67-63 -- also had a hard time.
In past seasons, Syracuse probably loses on Sunday, as not everything was working: shooting guard Trevor Cooney was bad (zero points on 0-for-3 shooting), freshmen point guard Tyler Ennis was playing like a freshmen and C.J. Fair battled through early foul trouble and couldn't find a rhythm.
Yet, as the case was during last season's Final Four run, SU's 2-3 zone defense kept the Johnnies' offense at bay. The Red Storm made just one of their 13 attempts from behind the 3-point arc and hung around with the No. 2 team in the nation because they outplayed the Orange for a 15-minute stretch in the second half that helped them earn a 60-58 lead.
Facing one of the biggest upsets of the college basketball week, Syracuse turned to four of its five "Final Four" tools -- Fair's mid-range game, Ennis' smart point guard play, Jerami Grant's play-making ability and the 2-3 zone defense.
In the final 4 minutes, 40 seconds, Ennis tallied six points (4-for-4 from the free throw line), an assist and a steal; Fair made two huge jump shots created by his ability to create space for himself; Grant came up with a huge block and a defensive rebound that helped end the game; while the defense allowed zero field goals in the final 5:48.
These types of efforts is what college basketball experts and fans look for when trying to figure out if a team can make a run in the NCAA Tournament. Looking around the nation, Syracuse has just as many weapons as an Arizona, Michigan State, Kansas, Duke, Louisville or Kentucky.
If a team decides to shut down Fair, usually, Cooney or Grant provide solid backup. If a team tries to pressure the first-year floor general, Ennis, he seems like he can handle the heat. And despite the revolving door in the front court, the trio of Dajuan Coleman, Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita are good enough defensively to clamp down when they need to.
Of course, even with all the weapons and options to win games, head coach Jim Boeheim believes this needs to get better (and if the last two seasons proved anything they will get better).
For those Orange fans curious if the Orange have it in them to make another Final Four run do yourself a favor and watch other college basketball games. Sure, there are teams that have better players here and there, but, like last season, nobody is running away with the "this is the team to beat" race. In fact, there are about 16 teams, with Syracuse included, that could be the team to beat come late March.
The key factor for the Orange's championship hopes do hinge on a few things: Syracuse's defense playing outstanding, Fair being able to make his jumpers and Ennis continuing to play mistake free. So far, the Orange have been able to slowly improve all of these tools and if the trend continues Syracuse fans might be planing another postseason trip to Texas.