Commentary

Syracuse rides the emotional roller coaster known as the Big East

Originally Published: January 19, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- Andy Rautins gave himself roughly three hours.

Three hours to ruminate, stew and grieve the Orange's 78-60 loss to Pittsburgh on Monday.

So by the time the team's charter plane touched down in the snow banks of New York, Rautins was finished.

Game over, loss compartmentalized, on to the next task.

It is the only means of survival in the Big East, where one ridiculously tough opponent begets the next ridiculously tough opponent in a masochistic march that would have Dante calling for a rewrite.

The River Styx and flaming tombs? Please. Try Syracuse's levels of recent and upcoming Hell: eight ranked opponents in 10 games. One of the two so-called off-nights is a visit to Providence, where along with a veteran Friars team, the Orange also have to contend with whatever fan/brother might stroll onto the court to vent his frustration. The other is a visit from Bob Huggins and his traveling root-canal-tough West Virginia team that has won seven of its past nine.

So after a six-day stretch of Georgetown, Notre Dame and Pitt, what's the very next task for Syracuse? Why just little old Louisville, the team that knocked Pittsburgh from the ranks of the unbeaten and off its No. 1 perch.

Oh the joy.

"It's like we always say, you can't take a win to the head and you can't take a loss to the heart," a still disconsolate Rautins said. "This is the hand we've been dealt and we have to stay within ourselves."

Ranked eighth in the country, Syracuse is good enough to turn opponents into teeth-gnashers too. Jonny Flynn is as talented a point guard as there is in the country (his performance against Pitt notwithstanding). Rautins and Eric Devendorf are red-hot shooters and big men Arinze Onuaku and an emerging Rick Jackson are tough enough to bang inside.

Thing is, no one is good enough to survive the Big East unscathed. It's impossible. Louisville is 4-0, but has to play this very Syracuse team in front of a gigantic crowd at the Carrier Dome this weekend. Think that'll be easy?

Marquette is the only other unbeaten in league play, but it's just a matter of time before the Golden Eagles lose, too. That's no knock on Buzz Williams' crew, but a nod to the reality of a conference that makes teams feel like someone is holding their heads underwater and all they can do is occasionally gasp for air.

In a week, Marquette plays at Notre Dame, where the Irish only hold the nation's longest home win streak, and follow that up with a visit from Georgetown.

"Of course we're upset that we lost, but everybody in the Big East is going to lose," Pitt's DeJuan Blair said, reflecting on his team's first blemish at the hands of Louisville. "Everybody in this league needs to understand you're going to come up short sometimes. A lot of teams are going to take a loss. It's how you play in the next game that matters."

That's the lesson facing Syracuse right now. The Orange have been a good rebound team, shelving an inexplicable loss to Cleveland State with a pounding of poor Canisius and a win at Memphis, as well as avenging an ugly loss to Georgetown with an impressive victory against Notre Dame. Syracuse sits at 17-3 and 5-2 in the league, hardly on that uncomfortable bubble that has become so familiar in recent seasons.

But as January pushes forward, a Big East hierarchy is developing. A group of top-tier teams is emerging from the crowded pack of ranked members. Pitt leads the front-runners, with Connecticut, Louisville and a still fairly untested Marquette biting at its heels. Syracuse is within a few lengths.

If the Orange run with the leaders in the endgame, they will have earned their way. Syracuse won't face another bottom-of-the-league team until Feb. 24, when it travels to St. John's.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Flynn
Dave Miller/US PresswireJohnny Flynn was just 3-of-14 from the field in Syracuse's 18-point loss at Pittsburgh.
By then, there will only be four games left in the regular season.

"You can do it, but you have to be mentally tough," Harris said.

Boeheim pointed to a trifecta of troubles Syracuse has to avoid to survive: "In this league you have to have tremendous effort every night, you have to stay out of foul trouble and you have to hit your free throws. And if you do all of that, you're in the game. You aren't winning the game, but you're in it."

Against Pitt, the Orange went 0-for-Boeheim's keys. Jackson and Harris each were cited for technical fouls (though both were negated by Levance Fields' going clank-clank-clank-clank at the rim) and the Orange, the best shooting team in the conference, struggled offensively.

Devendorf was never part of the offense, taking just four shots. Flynn played probably his worst game in a Syracuse uniform -- shooting 3-of-14, missing all five of his 3-point attempts and turning the ball over three times. And Harris and Jackson both were in foul trouble, limited to 29 minutes apiece.

The biggest culprit was the offense. This team is predicated on its offense, ranking 12th in the 16-team league in scoring defense in the Big East.

So when the ball isn't dropping, the Cuse isn't winning -- and ultimately that eventuality caught up with the Orange on Monday.

After Rautins and Devendorf hit back-to-back 3s to show some life and make it 53-46, Fields and Young answered with back-to-back 3s of their own, igniting a Pitt crowd still reveling in its Steelers glory (Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes were in the house to add to the fervor). The Panthers rolled off 47 points in the second half, 26 of which came in the paint, a deadly combination of scoring too easy and too often.

Boeheim tried every combination, using man-to-man and zone defense … but neither worked well. Pitt shot better against the man (62 percent, to 42 percent versus zone), but turned it over less against the zone (one TO, to 10 versus man).

"We were probably in it longer than we should have been," Boeheim conceded. "We didn't play well enough to win."

In fact, Syracuse played so poorly that Harris wants to edit Rautins' postgame ritual. He doesn't want to put this game away in a box. The junior has never beaten the Panthers and looks forward to games against Pitt about as much as he'd look forward to an eyebrow wax.

So he wants to rewatch every second, relive every painful moment and commit it to memory.

And then he wants a rematch.

"Man, I hope we play Pitt again," Harris said. "I hope we get them in the Big East tournament. We will beat them. I can promise you that. We will beat them the next time."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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