At about this time in the men's college basketball season, head coaches are trying to tune-up their teams for its run toward the month of March, which features schools battling for conference-tournament titles and soon the National Championship.
For the No. 2-ranked Syracuse Orange, they will be entering the next three weeks (yeah, March Madness starts in three weeks!) as one of the two favorites to win the national title -- the other being the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats.
However, like many programs in the nation, the Orange are facing a metaphorical fork-in-the-road in their season. But unlike many teams, there's something different about Syracuse's fork, as its doesn't have three pathways or choices, instead, there's just one.
One prong directly pointing at New Orleans and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the place where the NCAA Tournament's 2012 version of the Final Four will be held.
The Orange, however, have no road map, no past advice about what obstacles are on the horizon and no joyful feelings about their future journey -- because each year the March Madness voyage is different. The only joy that will be felt is when (if) SU reaches its final destination, its second NCAA championship.
Right now, Syracuse's way of preparing for its 19-day march to the crown is to play subpar basketball, while, somehow, grinding its way to a tight victory.
No example was better of the Orange's strategy than Wednesday night, when the platinum-Orange edged another scrappy Big East opponent, the South Florida Bulls, 56-48, at the Carrier Dome.
Behind a 26-0 run, which spanned from the last nine minutes of the first half into the first 2 1/2 of the second, and some tough baskets down the stretch, Syracuse earned its eighth straight victory, its 21st consecutive at home, while locking up a share of a Big East regular-season title for a league-best 10th time (only the Connecticut Huskies have earned the same amount).
In the post-game media room, the rhetoric from Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, who's in the middle of his 36th season, was basically the same as it has been for the past few weeks: we shot poorly (34.5-percent from the floor) and that needs to get better; we had another bad-rebounding effort (41-31 in favor of USF) and that needs to get better; however, in the end we made the big plays to win.
The victory over USF was the fifth consecutive contest that showcased SU successfully clinging onto a 3-point or less advantage with 6 1/2 minutes or less remaining in the second half. Throw out the pull-away victory over the UConn almost two weeks ago, and Syracuse has had to hold on to slim leads in the final three minutes of four of those games.
"It's that I feel like everyone walks away from the game feeling like, had the ball bounced a different way a couple times, they would have beaten us. And given the chance to play us again, I imagine they think they would. We've won eight-straight but our opponents are 8-0 in moral victories in that time as well."
Meanwhile, the national experts, who have had a love-hate relationship with the Orange all season, are also starting to get skeptical again:
Like @GottliebShow says, there are teams that defensively could give Cuse a lot of trouble right now. Still strong team, but flaws showing.— Andy Glockner (@AndyGlockner) February 23, 2012
Now, how can one be concerned about a team that has pulled off something that a Carmelo Anthony-led squad couldn't do almost a decade earlier?
Well, the statistics don't lie. For being an elite team, the Orange are bad at rebounding the ball and for them to become a legitimate title contender they need to improve (SI.com's Luke Wynn on Thursday).
The Orange still rank No. 13 in defensive efficiency because they create turnovers and lock down the paint, but no team in the efficiency era has reached a Final Four with such a low defensive-board percentage.
Boeheim also admitted Wednesday, that his team does need to start playing better because the NCAA field is too good for its run-of-the-mill winning streak to continue to be successful.
"I don't know, we've had a few games like this. A few close games and made good plays, so we know how to (win them) and we can," said Boeheim. "But that doesn't mean you can win six of these in a row and you get into another one and lose. That's just the way the game is."
However, the Orange's latest handful of games haven't scared off everyone from picking SU to win it all come March.
The margin of victory is so small in the NCAA Tournament, especially nowadays in the deeper rounds, that teams need to know what to do when facing a late-do-or-die situation. Jardine knows him and his teammates aren't fazed by that kind of pressure.