Of all the top college teams to pass through Madison Square Garden this season -- a list that starts with undefeated No. 1 Kentucky and includes five of the top eight in the current AP poll and 10 of the top 20 -- the team that keeps jumping out as the most well-rounded threat to be crowned national champion is Syracuse.
Kentucky certainly deserves the No. 1 ranking, and freshman John Wall is just a spectacular player when he gets going (he's on display tonight against South Carolina). But Syracuse has all the components, including more experience than John Calipari's freshman-reliant team, and the No. 4 Orangemen have an explosive dimension that was on display again Monday night in their nationally-televised 73-56 blowout of No. 7 Georgetown at the Carrier Dome.
Boeheim's team stumbled in the starting gate, falling behind, 14-0, against a Hoyas team known for its toughness, defense and the inside-outside combination of Greg Monroe and Austin Freeman. But the Orange just exploded on Georgetown, scoring the last 11 points of the first half to go to intermission with a 34-29 lead. Or 34-15, after the Hoyas' hot start.
The second half really was no contest as Syracuse kept extending its lead. The athletic Monroe, who can be a beast inside, got bounced around and finished with eight points and four boards before fouling out against Boeheim's 2-3 zone. Freeman had a good night with 23 points, but if the Hoyas really had threatened, that Orange zone can extend to mess up perimeter shooters, too.
Just ask North Carolina. Yes, the defending national champions were overrated coming into this season with a completely re-tooled team. But when Syracuse exploded in the second half of an 87-71 win at the Garden, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams was stunned by how completely his team was dominated.
That was the coming-out party for Syracuse transfer Wesley Johnson, who stamped himself right there as one of the top five players in the country. He lit up the Heels that night with 25 points. Johnson's numbers were more modest against Georgetown: 14 points, 9 boards, 4 blocked shots. But that's the way Johnson goes about his business. He does exactly what the Orange need to win in every area of the game, including defense.
Typical, too, was the leadership Andy Rautins provided at point guard against Georgetown with 15 points and great game management. The Orange also got 15 points off the bench from Kris Joseph, who did similar good things at the Garden along with Scoop Jardine. Add the size, rebounding and shotblocking of Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson in the frontcourt, and Boeheim has the answers for most every question.
But the key is Johnson. What a smooth, heady, incredibly patient player he is. Kentucky's Wall can go at hyper speed, but the cool Johnson is just as effective, materializing at the right spot and the right time again and again.
The ideal NCAA final, in my mind, would match those two, Kentucky's Wall and Syracuse's Johnson. With any luck, that might be where this season is headed.