SYRACUSE, N.Y. — A year ago, Seton Hall entered the Carrier Dome with a losing record and stunned the hometown faithful with a barrage of 3-pointers en route to a 22-point win over Syracuse.
The teams meet again on Wednesday night under the Teflon roof in their Big East opener, and it’s no surprise the unbeaten Orange, the top-ranked team in the nation, are a bit wary.
The Pirates (11-1) have won eight in a row and are off to their best start since the 1992-93 season, when they won the conference championship. Seton Hall’s lone loss was 80-73 to Northwestern in the championship game of the Charleston Classic in November.
“They are playing great,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “They are in the top 10 (seventh) in the RPI. They came in here and beat us last year (90-68). They have a very good team, and it will be a challenge opening the Big East.”
It’s a challenge Syracuse (13-0) seems more than ready for. The Orange are ranked No.1 for the third straight week, receiving 54 first-place votes in the AP’s 65-member national media poll.
Despite the sexual abuse case that led to the firing of longtime assistant Bernie Fine last month and a subsequent defamation lawsuit filed against Boeheim and the university by two former team ball boys, the Hall of Fame coach has kept his team focused on basketball.
“For us, it’s just about staying level-headed,” fifth-year senior Scoop Jardine said. “We want to just stay motivated and continue to try to win every game. We know we have a good Seton Hall team coming in here. We just have to stay level-headed, keep grinding.”
Seton Hall is led by Herb Pope, who is averaging 20.3 points and 11.4 rebounds and has managed to stay out of foul trouble for most of the season. He has a solid supporting cast in Jordan Theodore (15.8 points per game and tied for fourth nationally with 7.4 assists per game), Fuquan Edwin (14 ppg and leads the nation in steals with 3.3 per game), and Patrik Auda (9.4 ppg), while Aaron Cosby is 23 of 55 on 3-pointers.
Still, coach Kevin Willard’s five freshmen promise to have a steep learning curve in the Big East beginning with the imposing Orange.
Syracuse is unbeaten at this juncture of the season for the third straight year. The Orange have posted close victories over 11th-ranked Florida (72-68) at home, and Virginia Tech (69-58) and Stanford (69-63) in capturing the NIT Season Tip-off at Madison Square Garden. They also have a convincing triumph over North Carolina State (88-72) in their lone true road game of the season.
With 10 players averaging at least 12 minutes and none more than senior Kris Joseph’s 29.8 per game, Boeheim has a luxury he’s rarely had in his 35-plus seasons — impressive depth and impressive length at every position among both starters and reserves. By comparison, four Seton Hall players are averaging 30 or more minutes.
All those fresh bodies have helped Syracuse pace the nation in steals with 11.2 per game. The Orange also have a turnover margin of plus 7.8 and average seven blocks and 7.4 3-pointers per game.
Syracuse has won its past two games by the same score — 80-61 over Bucknell and Tulane — and the Orange have shown a remarkable ability to score lots of points in bunches.
They ran off 23 straight against the Wolfpack and 19 in a row against the Green Wave, runs that featured waves of 3-pointers — eight in the first half against North Carolina State and five by three different players in the final 6 minutes of the opening period against Tulane.
Boeheim has downplayed the significance of that, even though his team has hit 96 of 257 (37.4 percent) from beyond the arc and each of the Orange’s top five scorers has converted at least 10.
“I think it is the game. That is just the game of basketball, not this team,” Boeheim said after the win over Tulane on Thursday night. “Every game of basketball is pretty much a game of runs. You get a run, and that is what I pretty much think it has always been.”
The Orange have two freshmen who are about to receive another first-year indoctrination. Rakeem Christmas and Michael Carter-Williams already know the difference between high school and college. Now, they’re about to get a taste of what it’s like to play in perhaps the most rugged conference in the nation.
“We’re real excited now,” Carter-Williams said. “I mean, it’s going to be great. We’re going to have a fun time, and we’re going in on top, so we want to stay there.”
Joseph, the team’s leading scorer at 14.5 points per game, just wants his teammates to remain on an even keel — forget all the talk swirling around about being No. 1.
“We haven’t thought about it at all since gaining that ranking,” Joseph said. “As a team, we don’t think about it. We just go out as a team and play basketball.
“This (the Big East) is what we’ve been prepping for,” he said. “For the younger guys, they don’t really know what the Big East is like, but they’ll learn soon enough. As far as us, as leaders, we just have to prepare to win because we know what it’s going to be like.”