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SHANNON RYAN / ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Syracuse surges with tournament wins

Orange goes from unranked to No. 10 in Associated Press poll after big victories; attrition worries give way to hopes about transfer player Wesley Johnson and others.

November 24, 2009|By Shannon Ryan
  • Syracuse's Wes Johnson celebrates after the Orange defeated North Carolina, 87-71, to win the 2K Sports Classic on Friday.
Syracuse's Wes Johnson celebrates after the Orange defeated North… (Jim McIsaac / Getty Images )

Maybe Syracuse will trade in its orange jerseys for "I Love New York" tourist T-shirts.

The Orange beat nationally ranked California and North Carolina by an average of 19 points to win the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer at Madison Square Garden, the same place in which they defeated Connecticut in a legendary six-overtime Big East tournament game last season.

Syracuse went from unranked to No. 10 in the Associated Press poll -- the third-largest jump in poll history -- and to No. 7 in The Times' poll.

To think, this is the same group of players who were nationally embarrassed when they couldn't figure out how to beat Division II LeMoyne in an exhibition game three weeks ago.

When Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris left for the pros, Syracuse fans had the look of a lottery player whose ticket number was one off. They knew the Orange would have been money with the return of that group.

Syracuse was picked to finish sixth in the Big East Conference.

But instead of focusing on losses, Syracuse fans should have been realizing their gains.

The most important was Wesley Johnson, a 6-foot-7 transfer from Iowa State.

He leads the Orange with averages of 17.3 points and 7.5 rebounds a game.

And last season's periphery players are showing they can help Johnson.

Center Arinze Onuaku shoots 71.4%. Point guard Scoop Jardine, who did not play last season because of his part in an ID-card scam, has a 3.3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Senior shooting guard Andy Rautins shoots 44.4% from three-point range.

Syracuse's zone defense, which is known to cause opposing coaches nightmares and cause shooters headaches, appears to have improved.

It's not out of the question to think that this Syracuse team could be better than last season's. We will see where they are when they return to New York at the end of the season for the Big East tournament.

Close calls

Every team but Texas in last week's Associated Press top five recorded a victory by fewer than five points against an unranked team.

Kansas squeaked by Memphis, 57-55. Michigan State survived Gonzaga, 75-71. Kentucky needed a game-winning shot by freshman John Wall to beat Miami (Ohio), 72-70. George Mason came within a point of taking down Villanova, 69-68.

Swish of the week

This is a double swish for Illinois freshman guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul. Paul leads the Illini with 16.7 points per game, and Richardson is third at 11.3.

Brick of the week

Dayton. The Flyers were ranked No. 18 in the Associated Press poll (and No. 17 here) a week ago and seemed to have all the ability to keep climbing the charts before they ran into the two-sided buzz saw of Villanova and Kansas State to fall to 2-2 -- and out of the rankings.

Game to watch

Creighton vs. Michigan, Thursday, noon, ESPN2. The Bluejays returned nine upperclassmen, including leading scorer P'Allen Stinnett. They have plenty of depth. Upsetting the Wolverines would be just the thing to help their profile come March. Creighton, which is averaging 35.7 rebounds a game, had best be aggressive on the boards against Michigan, which pulls down an average of 43.5 rebounds.

sryan@tribune.com

latimes.com /sports

Kansas again leads rankings

Jayhawks maintain top spot ahead of Michigan State and Texas; Villanova and Kentucky round out the top five.

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