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Sunday, April 6, 2003
'Cuse beating Big 12's best in title quest

By Bruce Feldman
ESPN The Magazine

NEW ORLEANS -- Talk about your title runs: If Syracuse beats Kansas on Monday night, the Orangemen should not only get national championship rings, they should also get Big 12 rings.

Jim Boeheim
Jim Boeheim and Syracuse could wind up in the ACC by 2004.

The Orange couldn't win the Big East, but thus far have run the gauntlet through college basketball's best conference, cruising past Big 12 heavyweights Oklahoma State (68-56 in the second round); Oklahoma (63-47 in the East Region final) and Texas (95-84 in Saturday's national semifinal).

"Yeah, we take pride in that," said Syracuse forward Keuth Duany. "I guess we need to say we're a Big 12 team.

"I'm sure all the Big East teams are probably cheering for us. It's a pride thing."

Earlier this season, the Orangemen tuned up for these title runs by beating Missouri, 76-69. Oh, yeah, the Tigers were only ranked 11th in the nation back on Jan. 13 when the Orange won 76-69.

Syracuse (29-5) has been an equal-opportunity conference buster. While its wins over Big 12 teams have been its most impressive, the Cuse has run off 15 straight non-conference wins since losing its opener to Memphis. Players confirm what most believe is the key to why teams have such a hard time -- at least more so than Big East teams -- when facing Syracuse: the Orangemen's 2-3 zone.

We're playing Kansas. That's all. We're not playing anybody else.
Jim Boeheim

The defense, a long-time staple of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, is unique for both its scheme and for the long-limbed defenders playing it.

"I think the zone really throws them off," said Hakim Warrick, a 6-8 forward with a seven-foot wingspan. "It's really hard to prepare for because opposing teams really never get to see it."

But Boeheim, perhaps thirsting for another question about what it's like not having won the big one yet, didn't seem to care much about any intraconference superiority.

"It's irrelevant," the plucky coach said. "It's totally irrelevant.

"You never hear me talk about which conference (we're playing). I don't care about that stuff. We're playing Kansas. Doesn't matter what conference. They could be in the WAC. It doesn't matter. That's arguments that (reporters) can have and go back and forth on.

It means they win the championship of the Big 12, I guess, because we lost twice.
Kansas coach Roy Williams

"If you understand there's six or seven really good conferences in this country, (you can) stop arguing about it. I stopped 20 years ago. I realized 20 years ago I was stupid because I was trying to say, 'Well, we can do this, our conference won this game.' I woke up. I figured that out. Some other people should figure that out someday.

"We're playing Kansas. That's all. We're not playing anybody else."

Kansas coach Roy Williams said he didn't even realize Syracuse had beaten three fellow conference teams.

"It means they win the championship of the Big 12, I guess," said Williams, "because we lost twice."

Jayhawks' shooting guard Keith Langford also wasn't a huge fan of the topic. "I don't care what Big 12 teams do. ... Syracuse beat Texas. They haven't played Kansas yet."

No, but Syracuse has beaten two No. 1 seeds out of the Big 12 en route to the title game. Kansas, as the Big 12's regular season champion, was considered the best of the No. 2s -- and the Jayhawks' participation in the 2002-03's season finale validates those thoughts.

"Kansas is the champion (of the Big 12 regular season), so now we're playing against the best," said Syracuse point guard Gerry McNamara. "They're the best team that we're gonna play. They're the reason that we're here. We can talk about that we're the champs of their conference if we beat them."

Yes, if the Orange wins Monday night, the Syracuse title run will have gone through Big 12 country. And that, in itself, is the toughest road to any title in 2003.

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine

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