When Hakim Warrick’s spectacular block on Kansas’s Michael Lee secured Syracuse’s first national championship in 2003, the Orange completed a title run few could have predicted going into the season. While Syracuse featured perhaps the best player in the land that year in freshman Carmelo Anthony, the Orange weren’t ranked to begin the season and weren’t Tournament favorites in March.
Flash forward to 2010, and the scenario seems eerily similar.
Syracuse lost its three leading scorers from last season’s squad in Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris, and the outlook seemed bleak for the Orange in what was expected to be another tough year in the Big East. Head coach Jim Boeheim’s squad was ranked 25th before the season in the USA Today coaches poll—and was left out altogether by the AP—after a shocking loss at home to Division II Le Moyne in a preseason game.
Then Wes Johnson got on the court.
Johnson, a 6-foot-7 transfer from Iowa State, had to sit out the entire 2008-2009 season due to the NCAA’s transfer rules—but he was well worth the wait. The junior has been stellar for the Orange this season, leading the team in both points and rebounds with 16.0 and 8.4 per game, respectively, earning him Big East Player of the Year honors.
Perhaps more importantly, his unmatched athleticism and length at the small forward position have made him a perfect fit for Boeheim’s signature 2-3 zone, as Johnson’s ability to recover quickly and close down on outside shooters has contributed to Syracuse’s formidable defense.
Johnson suffered an injury against Providence in league play after taking a nasty fall, but the forward was impressive in Syracuse’s Big East quarterfinal loss to Georgetown, a game in which he had 24 points and seven rebounds. When healthy, Johnson is quite possibly the best small forward in the Tournament, and he will prove a matchup problem to any team the Orange might face.
To complement Johnson, the quality of Syracuse’s rotation leaves the Orange capable of overcoming nearly any conceivable situation in a Tournament setting. Boeheim has stated all season that his team features seven starters, and each of the Big East Coach of the Year’s top seven has erupted at one point or another this year.
While Carmelo Anthony had Gerry McNamara as the off guard to keep defenses honest, Wes Johnson has Andy Rautins. Boasting a skill set not unlike that of Jon Scheyer, Rautins is a savvy senior—and the Orange’s main threat from beyond the arc. Rautins’s lightning-quick delivery enables him to shoot in the tightest of spaces, and a big part of the Orange’s nearly unblemished road record can be attributed to Rautins’s consistent production. The senior has scored 20 points or more in five away games in Big East play, including 26 at Georgetown.
In the post, the Orange rotate big men Arinze Onuaku, Rick Jackson, and Kris Joseph. Jackson has had the best year of his career, and his growth as an offensive player, along with Onuaku, has given Syracuse two viable options inside. Syracuse faithful will be concerned about the health of Onuaku after the redshirt senior went down clutching his right knee in the Orange’s recent loss to Georgetown, but Onuaku is now listed as day-to-day with a quadriceps strain.
If Onuaku can return quickly, he solidifies the inside of Syracuse’s zone, and Boeheim’s defense will prove a tough test for any team to prepare for in a short time—for a recent example of how difficult that adjustment is, look at Duke’s struggles against Miami’s 2-3 matchup zone in the ACC Tournament semifinal.
The only Tournament weakness the Orange exhibit is their free throw shooting. As a team, Syracuse shoots 67.1 percent, good for only 227th in the nation at the line. In an end-of-game scenario, the Orange may have troubles closing out their opponents, but if Syracuse can play to its potential, the Orange won’t leave too many teams within striking distance.