Syracuse Basketball: Scoop Jardine, No. 2 Orange Unfazed By NCAA Tournament's Roulette Table

LOUISVILLE, KY - FEBRUARY 13: Scoop Jardine#11 of the Syracuse Orange is all smiles as he walks off of the court after the Orange beat the Louisville Cardinals 52-51 in the Big East Conference game at KFC YUM! Center on February 13, 2012 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the No. 2-ranked Syracuse Orange earned a share of the Big East Conference regular-season title. Yet, more than ever, there's local and national hesitation to bet on Syracuse to win a national championship.

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.


SBN NY's Syracuse Basketball StoryStream -- Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician


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.

A win in the Big East is a win, but the close nature of the victories is beginning to concern the SU fan base (Sean Keeley of SB Nation's Syracuse blog Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician):

"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:

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.

"For the most part, you all keep nitpicking at whatever we do. We're 28-1, you know?" said senior point guard Scoop Jardine candidly, while sitting on one of the SU locker room couches on Wed. "We just have to win games and I don't care how it looks, just win. In the tournament that's all that matters. Win."

"I don't care if you win by one or 20 points. We're not going to blow everybody out, especially being the No. 1/2 team in the country."

In the big picture, Jardine is correct and the latest back-to-back Final Four appearances by the Butler Bulldogs proved that come March, pretty doesn't win games. Defense and execution during crunch-time does.

Fact: In the past two years, 10 of Butler's 12 NCAA-tournament victories have featured its opponents scoring 70 or less points with the only exception being an overtime victory, 74-71, over the Florida Gators in the last year's Elite 8.

In nine of those 10 victories, Butler won by eight points or less (three points or less in four contests).

In their latest eight victories, the Orange have held teams under 70 points, while in five of those contests winning by less than eight.

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.

"Everybody is confident when we get to that moment," said Jardine, who admits that previous seasons' close loses have helped SU learn how to deal with tight, late-game situations. "We know who to go to to make the game-winning shot and that's what we've been doing all year."

So, for a team that's has done nothing but win and perform well in the tail-end of games all season, why is there such an uneasiness surrounding them come March?

It now seems that betting on the Orange to win the national championship is like placing chips down on the color red on a roulette table that has seen it win 28 times out of 29.

It's risky, it's gutsy, stay away!

But oddsmakers will tell you, it doesn't matter because the stats don't lie -- each individual spin has the same odds, 50/50, no matter how many times it lands on red.

And for me, if red is hot and red has been working and red is on pace to win you the biggest jackpot only felt once before in your life. Why should I bet black?

It's obvious that Jardine isn't.

The Syracuse basketball schedule features the Orange visiting UConn Saturday (9 p.m. ET on ESPN), and finishing its regular-season play against visiting Louisville, Sat., March. 3. For more on Syracuse basketball, check out this SB Nation New York StoryStream. Make sure to follow us on Twitter at SBNationNY or JaredSmithCNY.

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