A shocking exhibition loss to a Division II opponent didn’t exactly promise big things for Syracuse this season, but it took Jim Boeheim’s team just four games to surge back into the top 10 nationally.
The 10th-ranked Orange will try to legitimize their gigantic jump into the rankings Tuesday as they go for a 32nd straight victory over local rival Cornell, which gave Syracuse a scare at the Carrier Dome last season.
Following an 82-79 loss to little-known LeMoyne on Nov. 3, the Orange started the season outside the Top 25, and they were still unranked when they knocked off a pair of ranked opponents en route to the 2K Sports Classic title at Madison Square Garden last week.
After a 95-73 victory over then-No. 13 California, Syracuse (4-0) beat reigning national champion and then-No. 6 North Carolina 87-71 on Friday for the tournament title.
The victories vaulted Syracuse to the third-biggest jump in the history of the poll for a team that had been unranked. Boeheim said he was simply experimenting during the preseason defeat, and is happy with what he has seen since.
“I just wanted to find out if we could play some man-to-man this year. LeMoyne executed well and they have a nice team. We played man-to-man and realized we can’t. We tried to play 10 guys and realized we can’t,” Boeheim said. “We learned from that, went back to working on the zone and intensified it a bit. … The defense is better than the past few years. The offense could be, but the defense is better and that’s what has been the difference.”
The Orange have received a boost from junior forward Wesley Johnson, who’s in his first season with the program after transferring from Iowa State.
Johnson earned tournament MVP honors, averaging 21.0 points and 9.5 rebounds in the two games and shooting 17 of 29 (58.6 percent) from the field, including 6 of 12 from 3-point range.
“He was very aggressive (Friday). It is the most aggressive I have seen him,” Boeheim said. “I think he is still trying to figure out what he has to do and how to get there. He will get there.”
Four other players scored in double figures against North Carolina, including Arinze Onuaku, who had 15 points and went 7 for 12 from the field. The senior center is shooting 71.4 percent for the season.
But despite their strong competition in Manhattan, Boeheim told his players that Cornell will be “the toughest game they’ve had all year.”
The Big Red have lost 31 straight in the series dating to 1968-69, and they’re 0-17 all-time at the Carrier Dome, but they certainly caught Syracuse’s attention last season, taking a 16-point lead in the first half before losing 88-78 on Dec. 3.
Cornell’s Ryan Wittman scored 33 points in that game, shooting 9 of 19 from 3-point range. Wittman, now a senior, is once again the leading scorer for the two-time defending Ivy League champions, averaging 17.0 points.
After winning their first two games on the road against Alabama and Massachusetts, the Big Red (2-1) lost their home opener 89-79 to Seton Hall on Friday.
“Obviously we’re excited to play a good (Syracuse) team,” Wittman said. “We are excited, but we also know we’ve got to learn from (Friday’s) game.”