After 19 straight wins, Syracuse's streak ended with a double thud
For 19 Games Syracuse rolled along. Senior point guard Jason Hart, whom Orange fans have sometimes treated like "a deranged villain," as Hart puts it, had heard nary a boo in the Carrier Dome as he directed a balanced offense in which six players averaged between 14.8 and 9.1 points. Senior center Etan Thomas had recovered from an early-season staph infection and right-ankle sprain, and he was playing like one of the best big men in the country. Steady power forward Ryan Blackwell—the third member of Syracuse's troika of senior leaders—was shooting well, pounding the boards and finding a way to get the ball to Thomas in the right places. Reserves were taking turns making significant contributions. (Swingman Preston Shumpert had 26 points off the bench in a defeat of Notre Dame, and in the next game, a victory over Pitt, shooting guard DeShaun Williams had 23.) Best of all, "we never exhibited the least degree of selfishness," said Thomas, the smooth-tongued high school debate champion. The result? After a 74-58 rout of Providence on Feb. 5, the nine-deep, No. 4-ranked Orangemen found themselves as the only undefeated team in the nation.
"And then reality set in," says coach Jim Boeheim.
Syracuse ended a reality-filled seven-day stretch on Sunday with a 71-67 victory over UCLA at the dome. That win followed a 69-67 homecourt loss to Seton Hall on Feb. 7—forcing the Syracuse bookstore to cancel its shipment of 20-0 sweatshirts—and another defeat, 82-69, against Louisville at Freedom Hall last Thursday. The Orangemen are now the nation's No. 9-ranked team, and, truth be told, that's closer to where they belong.
The balance that made Syracuse (20-2) so effective early in the season was delicate. Williams and Tony Bland were playing well at shooting guard, for example, but Bland, the sophomore starter, may have begun to look over his shoulder at Williams, the freshman flash. Bland has gone 3 for 20 from three-point range in his last seven games. Thomas is a splendid defensive player who was third in the nation in blocked shots through Sunday, but on offense he posted up like a statue against Louisville, clogging up the middle and getting to the foul line only once. Blackwell—0 for 7 from the field against Seton Hall and 2 for 8 from the line against Louisville—has been in a slump since a superb 18-point, 12-rebound performance in an 88-74 win over Connecticut on Jan. 24, the apex of Syracuse's season. "No matter what contributions we get from everybody else," says Boeheim, "how far we go depends on our three seniors."
Then, too, the Orangemen's schedule laid out a smorgasbord of desserts before the main course. Syracuse dispatched its first nine opponents, which included the likes of Florida Atlantic, Colgate, Albany and Hartford, by an average margin of 23.2 points, suggesting a powerhouse was on the loose.
It wasn't. And isn't. Syracuse is among a group of teams that are very capable but a notch below Cincinnati, the clear No. 1, and Duke. "Teams were shooting for us because of the streak, and maybe we were a little tired and sluggish," said Blackwell. "All we needed was this one [the win over UCLA] to get us back." He was probably right. Just don't think back means all the way to the top of the pack.
Oklahoma State Rocks
Cowboys Dance To a Big Week
Each time Oklahoma State senior guard Glendon Alexander sinks a three-pointer, he makes a fanning motion with his hands, as if he's on fire. Senior forward Desmond Mason celebrates his threes by raising his arms and making the O.K. sign with both hands. During the Cowboys' 74-71 win last Saturday at then No. 16 Oklahoma, senior guard Joe Adkins punctuated each of his four trifectas by shimmying his arms and shoulders in funky-chicken fashion. "That was the first time I'd seen that one," Mason said afterward. Adkins, whose 21 points led the Cowboys, doesn't have a name yet for his new dance, but it appears he'll have plenty more opportunities to show it off. "I'm a rhythm shooter," he says. "When I get in a rhythm, watch out"