It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since Syracuse has been ranked No. 1. The way the Orange are playing, it’s not hard to believe they may end up on top of the college basketball world.
Syracuse will try to clinch the outright Big East regular-season crown Tuesday night against St. John’s in the final home game for senior starters Andy Rautins and Arinze Onuaku.
The Orange (27-2, 14-2) earned the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament with a 95-77 victory over then-No. 7 Villanova in front of an on-campus record crowd at the Carrier Dome on Saturday. The three teams above them all lost over the weekend, moving Syracuse to No. 1 in the Top 25.
“It’s a great honor, a great testament for these players, these kids, to be number one,” coach Jim Boeheim said. “We all know it doesn’t matter that much in the big picture, it’s where you are at the end of the year. These kids have worked hard, been unselfish. They deserve it. They really do.”
This is the third time the Hall of Fame coach has had the Orange at No. 1. There was the preseason poll in 1987-88 and a six-week stint in 1989-90.
“It’s been a long time and we’re happy to be there,” said Boeheim, who won his lone national title in 2003 with a team that was unranked in the preseason.
Syracuse is the sixth team to go from unranked in the opening poll to No. 1. Kansas was the last, reaching No. 1 on Jan. 9, 1990.
The Orange have been bolstered by Iowa State transfer Wesley Johnson, who is averaging a team-high 15.3 points. Syracuse is shooting 51.8 percent to lead the nation.
“We’re also still leading the nation in field goal percentage so we’ve also been a very good offensive team,” Boeheim said. “They really move the ball and pass the ball extremely well. We’ve been good on both ends of the court. It’s not one thing really.”
Rautins and Onuaku join Johnson among five Orange players averaging in double figures in points.
Rautins - the son of former Syracuse star Leo Rautins - missed the entire 2007-08 season with a knee injury before returning to become the Orange’s top 3-point threat. Onuaku missed the 2006-07 season due to knee surgery before recovering to become a starter the next three years.
Syracuse got huge efforts inside from Onuaku and Rick Jackson in Saturday’s win, as they combined for 36 points and 17 rebounds. Onuaku’s eight offensive rebounds matched a career high.
The Orange have won nine of their last 10 and six straight at home over the Red Storm (15-13, 5-11), who appear likely to miss the NCAA tournament for the seventh straight season. St. John’s has lost 13 straight games to ranked teams, including six this season.
“It is a great opportunity for us to play a No. 1 team,” coach Norm Roberts said. “We need to use it as a great opportunity. There is no pressure on us. We have to go and play to the best of our ability and do the things we are capable of doing.”
St. John’s has lost three of four overall after shooting 37.5 percent in Saturday’s 71-64 home loss to then-No. 12 Pittsburgh.