Despite ugly win at Louisville, Syracuse worthy of its ranking, No. 1 seed

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim had no problem giving up the No. 1 ranking to John Calipari and Kentucky

Despite ugly win at Louisville, Syracuse worthy of its ranking, No. 1 seed

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim had no problem giving up the No. 1 ranking to John Calipari and Kentucky

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When Syracuse was upset by Notre Dame on Jan. 21, Orange coach Jim Boeheim got a text from Kentucky coach John Calipari.

It read, "Thanks a lot."

The loss meant Kentucky would inherit the No. 1 ranking and accompanying bull's-eye from the Orange. Boeheim was fine with giving that away.

"I hope you can stay there," Boeheim texted back to Calipari. "I want to just be close to you."

Twenty-three days later, Syracuse still is close to Kentucky – right behind the No. 1 Wildcats in every poll. And although there is a temptation to assert that the Orange's lurching, 52-51 mud-fight victory over Louisville on Monday as proof that they're not on the same plane as the Wildcats, that assertion would be incorrect.

This is a good Syracuse team, worthy of its ranking and collision course with a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed. And this was a good Syracuse win, no matter the score, for the following reasons:

• Louisville has owned Syracuse for years, beating the Orange seven consecutive times – in Freedom Hall, in the Carrier Dome, in the Yum! Center, in Madison Square Garden, wherever. Lesser Cardinals teams than this one have beaten the Orange. For the first time in their college careers, seniors Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph can say they beat the Cards.

"It feels great," Joseph said. "This win means a lot to Scoop and I."

• Louisville was a hot team, having won six in a row, and it was playing at home in front of 22,738 fans. And those fans were loud when the Cardinals erased an eight-point deficit and took a 51-46 lead with 3 1/2 minutes left. Turns out those were the last points Louisville scored, being shut out in its final five possessions.

"We buckled down," guard Brandon Triche said. "We just made sure we stopped those guys."

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• Syracuse was a gruesome 1-of-15 from 3-point range against Rick Pitino's zone. A poor defensive rebounding team, the Orange watched Louisville freshman Chane Behanan dunk missed shot after missed shot. And they received a combined seven points from Jardine and Joseph, who normally average 23. (Jardine missed all eight shots he took and had his first scoreless game since playing just 14 minutes on Nov. 14 against Manhattan.)

"Normally when you get your two best players struggling, you can't win at home or on the road," Boeheim said.

Syracuse won despite those problems – won with depth, won with defense, won with determination. But it did not win easy, which continues a recent trend. It was the Orange's third high-anxiety victory in the past five games, following an overtime victory at home against Georgetown last week and a referee-aided win at home against West Virginia on Jan. 28 (the goaltend that wasn't).

That's the way it tends to go in the Big East. And, according to Boeheim, the way it will go in the postseason as well.

"You're going to get into games like this in the tournament," he said. "I don't care who you are. You've got to be ready to make a play at the end. … It's going to be a play – one play or two – that's the difference."

Boeheim knows. Last season, Syracuse lost in overtime to Connecticut in the Big East tournament; if the Orange had stopped the Huskies' roll in Madison Square Garden, maybe it wouldn't have extended all the way through Houston to the national title. Then the third-seeded 'Cuse followed that up with an early NCAA upset loss to 11th-seeded Marquette.

In 2010, carrying a No. 1 seed but lacking injured big man Arinze Onuaku, Syracuse lost by four points in the Sweet 16 to fifth-seeded Butler on the Bulldogs' way to the national title game.

One play or two. That's the thin margin. Syracuse made those plays in 2003, all the way to winning the national title.

This March? Who knows?

[ Related: Big East basketball: Bad time for bubble teams to hit the skids ]

That's both the magic and the mayhem of March, when a season of hard work and big dreams boils down to one play or two in the final minutes. Old coaches such as Boeheim have learned to accept living and dying that way. They scheme for months in a tireless effort to control their destiny, then get into dogfights and hope fate smiles their way.

Boeheim mentioned last season, when he said Kansas and Ohio State clearly were the best teams in his mind but neither made the Final Four. The Jayhawks were routed in the regional final by upstart VCU, but the Buckeyes were beaten in just the way Boeheim described – a jump shot by Kentucky's Brandon Knight falls with five seconds left, and Ohio State's William Buford misses at the gun.

If anyone seems capable of taking the fickleness of late-game fate out of the equation this season, it is Kentucky. But Boeheim isn't ready to concede anything to the Wildcats, despite their recent dominance.

"As soon as you think a team is going to beat everyone," he said, "they show how human they are."

He cited Kentucky's late-game struggle at Vanderbilt on Saturday as an example, when the Wildcats coughed up a double-digit lead, fell behind late, then rallied in the final minutes to win.

This was the same game for Syracuse, only tougher – Louisville is better than Vandy. That is why this victory was a good one for the Orange, no matter how ugly or tense.

There will be more ugliness and tension ahead – for everyone. The teams that make the one play or two plays, here or there, will keep playing until no one else is left. Syracuse still has as good a shot as anyone of being there at the end.

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