This story almost wrote itself by halftime.
In a 10-minute span in the first half, No. 1 Syracuse ripped off a 19-0 run, punctuated by a Kris Joseph jumper that sent the crowd of 25,412 at the Carrier Dome into a frenzy. The Orange led by 18 at the break. An easy win seemed near.
But call it complacency on the part of Jim Boeheim’s Orange, a step-up in intensity from No. 20 Marquette, an attempt to spoil the strong lede I had planned for this piece, or a combination of all three, but a turnover-plagued half for Syracuse let the Golden Eagles cut the deficit to two, with four and a half minutes to play. A late Orange push, highlighted by a Dion Waiters block of a Darius Johnson-Odom three-point attempt that led to a layup on the other end, kept the Golden Eagles at bay and improved Syracuse to 17-0 on the year with a 73-66 win.
Syracuse passed its first test since defeating then-No. 9 Florida, 72-68, in early December.
The stark differences in the first and second halves for Syracuse showed, on Saturday afternoon, the reason why they’re No. 1, just as much as it showed how they can be beat.
Much of Syracuse’s weakness at the beginning of the second half came from within. By taking some ill-advised shots and not keeping their foot on the pedal, in combination with Marquette’s pressure defense out of the gate, that same momentum the Orange had built in the first half did not carry over.
Look to the point guard spot for some answers.
Scoop Jardine was not a factor, and was even a detriment, turning the ball over six times and shooting just 1-of-5 from the floor. Credit Dion Waiters, who had 12 points and seven assists off the bench, including that block-to-layup swing that changed the complexion of the game, coming down the stretch.
So does that make the Orange the best team in the country, though they sit atop the polls?
Florida is Syracuse’s only other signature win and has tanked lately. Syracuse has yet to have a real road test (and may not have one until the middle of February, against Louisville) so that variable remains undefined. The Orange should be able to coast with the No. 1 ranking for at least another month, with an upcoming schedule of Villanova, Providence, slumping Pittsburgh, a Tim Abromaitis-less Notre Dame, and Cincinnati, which just lost to St. John’s.
Kentucky, North Carolina, and Baylor may have to wait in line for that No. 1 spot to open up.