Five quick thoughts after No. 1 Syracuse jumped out to a huge lead and held off No. 20 Marquette 73-66 at the Carrier Dome on Saturday ...
1. As long as one Syracuse PG plays well ... The ongoing Scoop Jardine-Dion Waiters timeshare reminds me of that classic Dunkin' Donuts commercial making fun of Starbucks' menu: "Is it French? Is it Italian? It's Fretalian!" In other words, as long as one half of Scoopon Jarders shows up, 'Cuse is probably going to win. Today was another one of Waiters' afternoons, as he picked up Jardine (three points, three assists, six turnovers) with an impactful 12/4/7/3 line in 28 minutes. Entering the season, point-guard play was the one possible Achilles' heel for the Orange. So far, in big spots, it's been solid enough.
2. As the world turns (the ball over). Turnovers are an enormous factor in Syracuse games. The Orange are No. 4 in Division I in forcing turnovers (27.8 percent of possessions, per kenpom.com), but they also are ninth in offensive turnover rate, coughing the ball up just 16.2 percent of the time. That spread, at the tempo at which the Orange play, equates to seven "free" possessions a game. That's an enormous advantage for a team with an elite offense, especially when most of them are steals, which create transition opportunities. Syracuse caused 12 Marquette turnovers in the first 20 minutes, some of which were a huge factor in the Orange's 23-1 first-half run. In the second half, Marquette only lost the ball four times (to Syracuse's nine) and ... Voilà! ... they got within two before the Orange pulled away. The Golden Eagles put up 47 second-half points on 'Cuse without much late-game fouling.
3. Devonte Gardner is a huge key for Marquette. With Chris Otule out long-term (and maybe for the season), the Golden Eagles are going to have to lean heavily (no pun intended) on the hefty sophomore, who put in 25 very strong minutes against the Orange, despite some foul trouble. Marquette was really, really small against the sizable Orange when Gardner was not on the floor. He was highly instrumental in the Golden Eagles' early success in the game, and Marquette will need these kinds of contributions as they continue through the grind of Big East play.
4. Timeout déjà vu? When Junior Cadougan hit a three with 9:16 left to cut Syracuse's once-23-point lead to three, tweet went the whistle, and there was Buzz Williams calling timeout again during his own team's run. This one seemed more understandable, though, as Williams took the opportunity to take a foul-plagued (and assuredly tired) Gardner out and get Jamail Jones back in a for a few minutes. With Syracuse's size and depth (although the 'Cuse bench didn't go that much deeper than Marquette's today) wearing his team down, using timeouts strategically for subs and quick breathers is fine. The only issue came when Marquette saved possession with an on-floor timeout but burned its last one with 3:34 left in a close game, having used some in the first half to try to halt Syracuse's big run.
5. Is Syracuse the best team in the country? There's a lot of reason to believe it is, although it's hard to know, since Syracuse has not played a significant road game yet (NC State?). Plus, due to the vagaries of the Big East schedule and teams being down, there are only two potential "big" spots on the slate: Feb. 13 at (regressing) Louisville and Feb. 25 at UConn. That's not to say they can't lose elsewhere on the road, but they should be fairly well favored in every other spot. That said, I would take the Orange over Kentucky right now on a neutral floor (zone would really bother the Cats' offense) and would probably take them over North Carolina, too. Are they better than my preseason national champ pick, Ohio State, when the Buckeyes are fully healthy? Let's just say I'd be down for that matchup on the final weekend of the season.