For a time on Saturday, Syracuse looked nothing like the No. 2-ranked team in the nation. Its famed zone defense was ineffective at preventing No. 8 Villanova from getting wide open shots, its offense was a sputtering mess and its two leading scorers, All-America candidate, C.J. Fair and shooting guard Trevor Cooney, were nowhere to be found.
That time lasted all of nine minutes. For the other 31 minutes, the Orange looked every bit as good as advertised, turning an early 18-point deficit into a 16-point win and never trailing in the second-half of a 78-62 victory that kept the Orange undefeated at 12-0 and handed the Wildcats their first loss of the season. It was also, it should be noted, Syracuse’s second win on its Big East Reunion Tour, following a victory two weeks ago over St. John’s at its home-away-from-home, Madison Square Garden.
Fair and Cooney, who had just two points as Villanova opened up a 25-7 lead at the 11-minute mark of the first half, finished with a combined 38. Cooney, aka Gerry McNamara Light, led the way with a team-high 21 points and made five three-pointers.
The zone clamped down as well, limiting Villanova to six-for-27 from beyond the arc after the Wildcats made their first four to start the game. That opening flurry conjured memories of ‘Nova’s last two wins at the Carrier Dome, when it made 7-of-15 in 2009 and 11-of-24 in 2011 to upset a third-ranked Orange team. When they finally cooled off, the Wildcats had no answer for the Orange, surrendering 20 unanswered points late in the first half to give up that huge lead and never getting closer than five points in the final minutes.
While Fair and Cooney delivered as expected, the player who may be the real key for Syracuse’s national title hopes is freshman point guard Tyler Ennis. A true freshman taking over for departed lottery pick Michael Carter-Williams, Ennis entered the day averaging over 31 minutes a game to go with 5.4 assists and 1.2 turnovers. On Saturday, he played 37 minutes and while he had just two assists, he didn’t turn it over once and finished with 20 points, the third time this season he has reached that plateau.
Ennis gives Syracuse a tremendous ballhandler and penetrator and a fourth capable scorer to go with Fair, Cooney and forward Jerami Grant, to form an offensive attack that can be as balanced as that 2-3 zone is on the other end of the court. With that quartet leading the way, the Orange can make a case that it is the best team in the country. While it doesn’t deserve to be No. 1 yet – not when Arizona is also unbeaten and has wins at Michigan and over Duke at MSG – it will have plenty of chances to boost its resumé over the next few weeks, with games against North Carolina, Pitt, Duke and Notre Dame among its early matchups in its first season of ACC play.
The common denominator among those four games is that all will take place at the Carrier Dome, as Saturday’s did and as all but four Orange games this season have. It isn’t until Feb. 12, when Cuse goes to Pittsburgh, that we’ll truly see just how far they’ve come. Until then, Syracuse can content itself with knowing that it is probably the best team in its old conference, one of the best in its new one and among the best in the nation.