Last week I had the pleasure of seeing the No. 1 team in the country up close and personal. It may have only been two games, but to watch this team from the baseline, to listen to coach Jim Boeheim speak after the game, and to see what fuels this team left no doubt in my mind they’re truly elite.
Assuming Butler doesn’t cut through another slew of elite programs, discerning between the handful of teams we’ve identified as “title contenders” suggests no clear favorite. If you can get to the final game in New Orleans, anything can happen.
With that, here’s the most compelling case for Syracuse to be one of two teams left standing by April 6, with seven stereotypes often found on National Championship winning or runner-up clubs, based on my in-person observations from the past week.
The unassuming star: Brandon Triche
Similar to: Nolan Smith (Duke, 2010); Jamar Butler (Ohio State, 2007)
If Planet Earth is invaded by aliens or a meteor threatens humanity, I’m hunting down Triche and following his lead. He’s incredibly calm – unwavering really – and efficient on the offensive end. “We have a bunch of go-to guys, not just one,” Jim Boeheim said after his team’s win over Providence.
That may be true, but Triche is at least the Orange’s go-to guy when they need a bucket most, and he’s head and shoulders above his peers in terms of basketball IQ.
The upperclassman leader: Kris Joseph
Similar to: Kyle Singler (Duke, 2010); Brandon Rush (Kansas, 2008)
Arguably the game’s best senior, KrisJo has enhanced his offensive skill set since last season, improving his 3-point percentage (42.6) even though he’s shooting more of them per game. He’s the center of every team huddle, and has the biggest smile on his face whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Every championship winning team has a face that camera’s can’t pan away from. Joseph has the most raw talent on this roster, and he seems to be having the most fun out there. He’s revel as a leader come March.
The super sophomore: Dion Waiters
Similar to: Arron Afflalo (UCLA, 2006); Gilbert Arenas (Arizona, 2001)
Filling out the Orange’s talented backcourt rotation is Waiters, who appears to be the only NBA Lottery pick of the bunch. In person, Waiters almost impossible to contain for multiple possessions. Where Triche and Scoop Jardine have little problem beating their man off the dribble, Waters can do that and also slice through the second layer of defense to get a lay-up or dump pass to a big man.
At third in the conference in steals, despite committing only 1.5 fouls a game, Waiters is also a savvy defensive player. Unless there’s an injury, Waiters should never start a game. For the only “Major Contributor” on this team to come off the bench must frighten opposing coaches.
The sophomore who’s growing up: Fab Melo
Similar to: Joakim Noah (Florida, 2006)
Alright let’s all admit the Melo is sort of an awkward dude. He has a propensity to foul, looks like Eeyore, and always seems to run with extreme caution. But for Syracuse’s patented 2-3 zone to be effective, it must be long down low. His success is integral to this team’s success, especially as Boeheim shortens his rotation and limits Rakeem Christmas’ minutes.
The maturation of Melo is still in progress, but you rarely get a polished seven-footer right out of high school, so I’d say the Brazilian is actually meeting realistic expectations.
The freshman that would start for any other team: Michael Carter-Williams
Similar to: Marvin Williams (North Carolina, 2005)
In only five minutes of play against Providence, Carter-Williams scored four points and looked very comfortable in a road atmosphere. Then Brandon Triche hit four consecutive shots to open the second half, and MWC wasn’t seen from again. He didn’t even step on the floor against Marquette.
“Michael played so good in the first half he probably thought he’d be in there in the second half,” Boeheim said after the Providence win. “But when you’re on the road and you got a guy like Brandon Triche and he makes four in a row, well, it just seems like a good idea to leave him in the game.”
It’s not an issue of talent. Carter-Williams really could start for a bunch of teams in the country. For now, though, he’s the subject of a bar room argument, the player fans point to when explaining to people just how historically this team is.
The fan-favorite bench player: Mookie Jones
Similar to: Mark Titus (Ohio State, 2007); Wes Miller (North Carolina, 2005)
Once thought of as a soon-to-be-transfer after being buried on the Orange bench, Mookie Jones has stuck around Syracuse and developed into a lovable player that doesn’t really play. Every teammate of Jones has a personalized handshake with the senior forward during the starting line-ups, and Jones himself has publically said he feels like a celebrity on campus.
Basically, he’s your quintessential off-court glue guy who doubles as the human cigar.
The polarizing player: Scoop Jardine
Similar to: Durrell Summers (Michigan State, 2009); Billy Edelin (Syracuse, 2005)
Last year, Jardine’s decision making was arguably the biggest reason Syracuse did not advance past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. While he’s turning the ball over at a bit higher rate this season, I only counted two (JUST TWO!) ill-advised shots from Scoop during the Providence and Marquette games.
This guy doesn’t have to score for Syracuse to win, there are too many weapons on offense he can defer to. Every bad shot taken by Scoop is one less opportunity for a good shot a teammate could take later in the possession. Considering the Orange are averaging seven more points a game this season than last, and Jardine is averaging four less points a game, I think this kid is finally coming around – looking to facilitate first, and score second.
That alone could be the difference that allows this team to win the 2012 National Championship.