NEW YORK -- There are two tattoos on the left bicep of Syracuse point guard Scoop Jardine. One is a basketball falling through a hoop. The second, inked in cursive letters, reads: "Best Kept Secret". "I still don't think people have seen the real me," Jardine said after scoring a team- and career-high 22 points in the Orange's 95-73 win over No. 12 California in the semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic.
Jardine has been hard to find the last two seasons. His initial pain came in the left leg as a freshman two years ago, but he shied from telling coaches in order to serve as the seventh player on a roster already riddled by injuries. He then sat two games due to a suspension for stealing another student's meal card in January. Meanwhile, his leg discomfort continued to grow, and he was finally diagnosed with a stress fracture in his tibia that March. The soreness lingered into last season and forced him to redshirt. "I just had to get right," he said.
He lost 15 pounds, squared against starter Jonny Flynn in workouts and prepared to return as his backup. His role would be to spell Flynn, an energizer guard. "I knew he was a top 10 pick all along," Jardine said, "but after the six-overtime game [in the Big East tourney quarterfinals against UConn] I knew he had blossomed and (would) leave."
This season Jardine played the reserve to true freshman Brandon Triche through the first three games. Triche, whose Orange roots trace back to his uncle Howard's career in the mid-1980s, is a well-known commodity in western New York as the Empire State's co-Mr. Basketball. Meanwhile, Jardine, a Philadelphia native who came to campus with a high school teammate, forward Rick Jackson, has re-introduced himself with a push-first offensive mindset. "He's been a fighter," said Syracuse shooting guard Andy Rautins, a savvy senior who scored eight points on 2-of-5 shooting from three.
Jardine had company when the active players went on the road last winter. Wes Johnson, a 6-foot-7, 205-pound Texas wingman who earned All-Big 12 rookie honors as an Iowa State freshman three years ago, came to Syracuse with decent defensive skills. Banging with power forward Paul Harris provided an opportunity to find comfortable positions in the team's traditional zone defense. "He can shut down one whole side of the court with his athleticism and ability to recover," said assistant coach Rob Murphy.
Cal's perimeter players saw how quickly Johnson -- who has 10 steals in Syracuse's first two games -- can re-route their drives to the basket. The springy junior blocked six shots and constantly looked to trap the Bears from the wings. "I think as a veteran team, they had seen zones before," said Rautins, "but they hadn't seen one as aggressive as ours."
The absence of three-point threat Theo Robertson due to a foot injury also limited the Bears, but Jerome Randle tried to neutralize the void with his quickness. Syracuse's scouting report all but ceded his drives to the right, which he capitalized on, going for 25 points on an array of tear-drop layups. "You could see they were surprised though when Wes would come jumping," Murphy said.
Before regular-season play began, Syracuse dealt with questions about who would fill in for Harris, Flynn and the departed Eric Devendorf. A wave of cynicism then crashed over the Orange with the loss to Division II Le Moyne in the Carrier Dome.
Since then, Jim Boeheim gained win No. 800, Johnson has emerged as a two-way star and familiarity returned with another win at their home away from dome. "We've moved on," Rautins said. "We've got an identity as a tough defensive team." North Carolina will give the Orange their toughest test yet Friday. If they pass, there will be no more secrets.