SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Seven weeks ago, Jim Boeheim called his Syracuse Orange the most overrated team in his long tenure as head coach.
Call the Orange imposing now. Despite some early struggles with four freshmen learning a new system, Syracuse has won its first 13 games for the second straight season and eighth time under Boeheim as he nears the midpoint of his 35th year at the helm.
With the Big East portion of the schedule at hand, Syracuse is ranked fifth in the AP Top 25 for the third straight week and appears more than ready for the bruising league play that begins at home against Providence (11-2) on Tuesday night.
The Orange have gelled remarkably well since a 72-58 win over then-No. 7 Michigan State three weeks ago in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. In its last two games — a 43-point victory over Morgan State and a 28-point win over Drexel — Syracuse scored 190 points as everybody on the bench contributed.
All that lazy passing, lackadaisical rebounding, and soft perimeter defense early in the season is a distant memory — for now, at least.
“I’m excited about the Big East,” said 6-foot-7 forward Kris Joseph, who had a career-high 25 points against Drexel last Wednesday night and finally seems more comfortable as a starter after excelling last year as the first option off the bench. “I think we’re ready for what’s coming our way.”
The Big East has five teams in the top 10 this week — No. 4 Connecticut and No. 6 Pittsburgh, who opened the conference season against each other on Monday night, along with the Orange, No. 8 Villanova and No. 9 Georgetown. Together, the five were a combined 56-3 entering the week. Notre Dame (11-1), which visits Syracuse on New Year’s Day, is ranked 15th and Louisville (10-1) is 22nd, giving the conference the strongest presence in the national rankings.
“This is a bear of a league. This is as good as our league has ever been at this stage of the year,” Boeheim said. “We’ve come through the nonconference portion of the schedule the way we’d like to. I think we got better.”
It certainly says so on paper.
Drexel was riding a six-game winning streak, including a stunner at Louisville that knocked the Cardinals out of the rankings for a week. Visions of another upset were dashed early by guard Scoop Jardine and forward Rick Jackson. Jardine scored 21 points and Jackson registered his ninth double-double of the season to complement Joseph’s scintillating 21-point second half.
“We’re spreading teams out and taking advantage of our ability to drive,” Jardine said. “When our team started out, we were young. We hadn’t played together. Coach made sure we got better every game, and we’ll get better from this game.”
Syracuse struggled early in the season in home games against one mid-major and three other teams in the lower echelons of Division I. An 86-67 win over Canisius prompted Boeheim’s “overrated” tirade, and that was followed by a 66-55 victory over Detroit and a 63-60 win over William & Mary, which frustrated Boeheim by matching the Orange with 37 rebounds.
Syracuse led by just three points at halftime in both its season-opener against Northern Iowa and against Canisius, trailed Detroit 28-25, was ahead of William & Mary by only one basket, and trailed Michigan 38-34 at the break before rallying for a 65-59 triumph.
Jackson said consecutive wins over North Carolina State (at home) and Michigan State began to showcase the type of team Syracuse figured to be when it was ranked 10th at the start of the season despite its youth.
“He (Boeheim) don’t want our heads to get too big. Coach is like that,” Jackson said. “All you can do is just listen to him. I mean, he’s been around for a while, so you’ve got to think he knows what he’s talking about.”
In his postgame comments after the past two games, Boeheim appeared more at ease, especially after Drexel. The Dragons entered the game with a rebounding margin of 14.2, second in the nation, and were outrebounded 38-27.
Just as important, if not moreso, the Orange shot 71.9 percent in the second half, hitting 18 of their first 20 shots against a team that held Syracuse’s nemesis Louisville to 46 points and outrebounded the Cardinals by 20 — in their brand new arena, no less.
“I don’t think we can play better offensively than we did,” Boeheim said. “We’re playing much better offensively with a lot more confidence. Earlier this year, we were getting one, maybe two guys playing well. This is as well as we can play.”
Added Jackson: “We’ve matured so much. We have a lot of young guys and they’re working hard. When your coach is satisfied, that brings a lot of comfort. We work hard to get his approval. We finally got his approval, and now we want to stay on his good side.”