Down three starters and the nation’s top sixth man from a program-best 34-win team last season, surprisingly little has changed on the macro level for Syracuse one year later.
Jim Boeheim’s assembly is again the team to beat in the Big East, just as it’s been for three of the last four years. Don’t let the Louisville hype machine—a media blitz of shameless endorsement that’s been set on overdrive since last April—dupe you into thinking otherwise.
On a day when Syracuse’s zone was oscillating like the Top 10 of the polls, when the team’s starting point guard committed eight turnovers while its top-ranked opponent pulled down 14 offensive boards and scored two dozen points off of takeaways, the Orange stood tall anyway, reminding the rest of the college basketball world why the Big East still trudges through frosty Central New York.
Syracuse rules the roost in the Big East these days, and any team that wishes to seize the conference’s last title before it disbands must bleach the Orange first. The league’s prohibitive favorite and reigning tournament champs tried, but failed, despite wielding home court advantage against an SU outfit diluted by the absence of James Southerland.
These Orangemen (forgive the throwback) may not have the sizzle of their Cardinal counterparts, but they certainly offer the best quality meat. What the team lacks in flare and signature style—as Louisville has with its game-changing zone press, Tasmanian guards and defensive enforcer inside—it rectifies with a staunch defense of its own and a relentless, albeit vanilla, offensive attack that hits opponents from all angles. Give Louisville the edge in style points, if you must. Syracuse is taking the ones reflective of production, the kind that settle conference championships instead of pageants.
Louisville and Syracuse have more in common than many so-called experts, fooled by the veneer of the Cardinals’ strong tournament runs last March, are open-minded enough to see. The Big East’s fraternal twins both swank proactive defenses—ranked one and two nationwide in adjusted defensive efficiency entering Saturday—that force turnovers in bulk and generate easy scoring opportunities. They’re each streaky (i.e. unreliable) perimeter shooting teams, heavily reliant upon backcourt scoring and struggling to develop dependable scoring options down low.
The difference in perception between Louisville and Syracuse has little to do with the composition of the two current squads. The real divide, and hence, illusion that the Cardinals are the Big East’s best, is a function of how the two teams finished last season. One peaked in postseason play while the other piqued national curiosity because of off-court controversy and an ill-timed suspension that spoiled an otherwise great year.
In actuality, Louisville was never so handsomely better than Syracuse, as the preseason press clippings led onlookers to believe. These Cardinals, as great as they are anyway, have ridden the memorable image of last year’s tournament success to an inflated preseason billing. Their hostile neighbors in Lexington were recipients of the same specious buildup while their biggest conference foe became a victim of the blowback.
Forget the images of old. This is 2013. Pitino’s seven-game winning streak over Boeheim is bygone, overturned by a recent three-game slide against his former mentor that covers the last year-and-a-half. Louisville’s Big East tournament title is in the books. Syracuse’s next one could well be in the making.
Two evenly matched teams—artificially separated by past image, not present performance—will duke it out for the Big East crown. But one, unfairly tabbed an underdog, has a decided leg up in the race thanks to a pivotal head-to-head win few saw coming.
Syracuse is now in the driver’s seat in the Big East, and that’s the only image that matters.