Who’s No. 1? How about Syracuse

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – With his old team up by 20 and a league title all but secured, Lawrence Moten – Syracuse’s all-time leading scorer – left his third row seat behind the Carrier Dome baseline Saturday and approached a cluster of cheerleaders.

“Yo,” Moten said to one of them, “we need to get a ‘We’re No. 1 chant’ going. It’s on you! Start it up! Let’s get it rolling.”

Seconds later, megaphones in hand, the Orange cheer squad set off a battle cry that ping-ponged throughout the Carrier Dome as fourth-ranked Syracuse finished off No. 7 Villanova 95-77 in front of an NCAA on-campus record crowd of 34,616.

“We’re No. 1!” they screamed, many of them with their pointer fingers in the air.

“We’re No. 1!”

The declaration is tough to dispute. With one week remaining in college basketball’s regular season, Syracuse is No. 1.

In the Big East – and maybe the entire country.

Along with clinching a share of the conference title, the Orange’s victory over Villanova could be enough to catapult them to the top of the Associated Press regular-season rankings for the first time since 1989-90.

Top-ranked Kansas and No. 2 Kentucky were both upset Saturday, and No. 3 Purdue lost standout Robbie Hummel for the rest of the season with a knee injury. The Boilermakers face Michigan State on Sunday.

“I’m not going to lie,” small forward Wesley Johnson said. “It will put a smile on everyone’s face if it comes out that we’re ranked No. 1. But we can’t get too caught up in that stuff. We can’t look ahead.”

Coach Jim Boeheim didn’t seem all that enthused about moving up in the national rankings.

“I don’t care,” he said. “It doesn’t matter at all where you’re ranked in our game, it really doesn’t. The only thing anyone will remember is how our guys finish in the [NCAA] tournament.”

With just two games remaining in the regular season, there aren’t many teams that look like more of a national title contender than Syracuse, which is hoping for its first Final Four appearance since 2003.

If it wasn’t a certainty already, Saturday’s thrashing of Villanova almost surely wrapped up a No. 1 seed for the Orange in the Big Dance. It also clinched them a share of the Big East title for the first time since 2003.

A victory over St. John’s on Tuesday will give Syracuse its first outright title since 1991. The Orange are 27-2 overall and 14-2 in the Big East.

“We’re not a Cinderella team,” forward Kris Joseph said. “I don’t want anyone to believe that. We’ve worked hard. We knew what we were capable of.

“It’s still a great feeling, though. We came into this season with a lot of doubters. Now the tables have turned.”

It truly has been a magical season for the Orange.

Syracuse was picked to finish sixth in the Big East preseason coaches poll – mainly because it lost its top three players (Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris) from last year’s Sweet 16 team.

Boeheim announced during the summer that he would start a freshman at point guard, and then the Orange opened exhibition play with a loss to Division II LeMoyne. Even then, no one thought Syracuse would be terrible, but there wasn’t anyone who could’ve predicted something like this.

Well, at least not anyone outside of Syracuse’s locker room.

“One thing about our team … we hit the door working hard,” forward Arinze Onuaku said. “We hit the door running. From day one, we knew there were people doubting us. We’ve been working hard from day one.”

Onuaku, Rick Jackson and Joseph, the Orange’s sixth man, have blossomed into one of the country’s more potent frontcourts. The threesome combined for 52 points and 26 rebounds Saturday for a Syracuse team that had six players score in double figures.

The Orange led Villanova by as many as 23 points and is now 7-0 against teams ranked in the Top 25.

“All year we’ve had a little chip on our shoulder, because we wanted to prove people wrong,” Johnson said. “A lot of people didn’t think much of this team coming into the season.”

One of the main reasons is because folks in the Big East didn’t know much about Johnson, the former Iowa State star who sat out last season because of NCAA transfer rules.

A first-team All-American candidate, Johnson entered Saturday’s game averaging 15.8 points. He scored 14 points and snared 10 rebounds against Villanova despite nursing a hand injury that has lingered for more than a month.

“They’re so improved and so balanced in every phase of the game,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They’re a great team. I thought we came ready to play, but they had a response to everything.”

Indeed, Villanova (23-5 and 12-4) was dominated in every phase of the game – and the deafening crowd certainly didn’t help the Wildcats’ chances. Fans wore shirts orange shirts bearing Syracuse’s “Shut It Down” motto and waved orange towels donated by the Jim and Juli Boeheim Foundation.

Seated along the baseline were former stars such as Moten, Derrick Coleman, Billy Owens and John Wallace. When the final horn sounded, Coleman – wearing a suite and tie – sprinted onto the floor and embraced Joseph and Scoop Jardine while fans snapped pictures of the scoreboard with their cell phone cameras.

“It’s been a great season,” Boeheim said. “I hope the fans enjoyed this team.”

The only thing odd about Boeheim’s statement is that it was spoken in the past tense.

For Syracuse, the fun is just beginning.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Feb 28, 2010