They pushed the curtain back a few feet at the Carrier Dome, opening up a few more seats so they could set a new record for largest on-campus crowd to see a college basketball game for Syracuse playing Villanova for a share of the Big East regular season title. This is the sort of atmosphere where I'm used to seeing Syracuse teams really tense up and play tight, something they really couldn't afford to do against the Wildcats, so I was kind of nervous about this one. When I came downstairs from putting SteelyKid to bed, and they were down six, that seemed totally justified.

I was very pleasantly surprised, then, to see them go on a run to end the half up ten. I was even more surprised to see them come out in the second half and not only hold that lead, but push it out to twenty before ending the game on top 95-77. There were a couple of stretches in the second half when it looked like they were putting on a coaching clinic. One fast break in particular, with about a minute and a half to go, was the sort of clip every high school coach in America is burning onto DVD right now-- four of five players touched the ball, and the ball didn't hit the floor until after it went through the hoop.

This is not the sort of thing I'm used to, after twenty-odd years of rooting for the Orange. I kept expecting them to go cold for an extended stretch, or to start chucking up ill-advised shots, but they stayed focused, and just dismantled a really good Villanova team.

If you want to know what sort of night it was in Syracuse, consider this: there was a sequence in the second half where Arinze Onuaku, a career 40% free-throw shooter, completed not one but two consecutive three-point plays. The fact that he hit one of the shots while falling on his ass is less incredible than the fact that he hit two consecutive free throws.

When that sort of thing happens, you know they're destined to win.

(Lest you think this is just a reflection of some newfound free throw competence on Onuaku's part, I should note that he did airball one in the first half.)

Miscellaneous commentary:

-- If you want the single defining stat of the game, it's this: according to the ESPN box score, Syracuse as a team had 22 offensive rebounds. Villanova had 22 defensive rebounds. When 50% of your missed shots result in a second chance to score, you're doing pretty well.

-- If you want a second box-score item to define the game, it's this: Six of the seven Syracuse players to get significant minutes scored between 12 and 19 points. That's really impressive offensive balance.

-- The seventh of those players was Brandon Triche, who continues to be in an unholy funk offensively, scoring only a single free throw. Scoop Jardine, nominally the backup point guard, got double Triche's minutes. Triche has been having a miserable February, and they'll need him to be better in March.

-- Bob Knight was one of the color commentators for the game (along with Jay Bilas), and once again, I was struck by how good he is in that job. He's a little slow off the mark-- he's frequently commenting on something two or three possessions earlier-- but when he gets around to it, his comments are really sharp. He still looks pretty uncomfortable on camera, though.

-- Knight and Bilas both commented on how the 2-3 zone really helps set up Syracuse's fast break, as the guards are always out front, and never pulled down under the basket to cover a drive. That's a really good point, and something I hadn't noticed before. From the end of the first half, I'd add another item: the zone also encourages opponents to take lots of three-point shots, which tend to lead to long rebounds, and get the play moving out away from the basket, so even the big guys are often headed in the right direction.

-- Wes Johnson is the showier player, and thus gets all the Big East player-of-the-year buzz, but Andy Rautins is the heart and soul of this team. His defense and passing really get them going. If you want to beat Syracuse this year, a good way to start would be getting Rautins in foul trouble-- he's a little prone to silly hacks at the ball, and if you can get him off the court, they're a much different team.

All the ESPN talking heads are touting Syracuse to take over the #1 ranking in the polls, following today's losses by Kansas and Kentucky, and Bob Knight went on to call them the best team in the country (to my relief, Digger Phelps is still talking up Duke). This is another thing that makes me very, very nervous-- in a typical year, that would cause the Orange heads to inflate like the roof of the Dome, and they would immediately drop Tuesday's game to St. John's.

This year's team, though, gives me hope that they might not find their usual way to screw things up. I'll try not to get carried away, but for as long as this lasts, they're a whole lot of fun to watch play.

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The orangemen simply outplayed the Wildcats from about midway through the 1st and continued their rout in the 2nd half. I'm still not sure that Syracuse is such a sob story as you make them out to be. They won the national championship when Carmelo Anthony was on the team. I'm a Seton Hall Pirates fan - I have reason to complain.

Yeah, what a fucking game. Although I am still reeling from the Syracuse-UConn game last Big East Tourney.

I also agree about Knight. He is as good as Vitale is horrendous.

it was an amazing game and the atmosphere in the dome was insane!

much more noise than the Georgetown game.

i am so happy that my in-laws have season tickets....and they're only 4 hours away!