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SYRACUSE COULD SILENCE SOME DOUBTERS WITH A WIN TONIGHT

Jim Boeheim says his team is "a little bit better" than it was a year ago. He says the Orangemen are about 70 percent of what they might be, and he believes they could be a very good team when the college basketball season rolls into March.

This comes from a man whose team is 15-0 for the first time in 13 seasons, the last remaining unbeaten team in the country. Imagine what he'd be saying if Syracuse was struggling along with two or three losses, like most of the other national contenders.

"The record is deceiving," Boeheim said while his Orangemen practiced Sunday afternoon in the Carrier Dome. "We've really snuck out a few games where we didn't play very well, and we won't be able to do that the rest of the schedule."

Boeheim would be the first to admit that Syracuse's schedule hasn't been the most trying so far. The Orangemen played their first 10 games at home. They didn't play a road game until Jan. 8. Their wins come against the likes of Colgate, Hartford, Albany and Florida Atlantic. The fact that they're ranked only fourth in the AP poll despite their perfect record reflects the level of skepticism among the nation's hoop writers.

But the tough part of the schedule begins tonight (7, ESPN), as Syracuse entertains Connecticut, the defending NCAA champion, in one of the biggest games of the season thus far.

UConn is 13-3, but has struggled at times. The Huskies are 2-2 in the Big East and have lost home games to Notre Dame and St. John's. Tonight's game gives them an opportunity to reassert themselves as the class of the conference against Syracuse, which is 5-0 in the league and suddenly being cast as the team to beat.

"I mean, they are the team to beat," said UConn coach Jim Calhoun after his team's practice. "I said that back in October and they are. You can't return everybody intact and not be good. I thought Syracuse was a very good team last year. Does 15-0 surprise me? Yeah, because they haven't made a mistake.

"They've got a lot of answers in a lot of different areas. Our kids see this as a challenge game. We like challenge games. We've kind of gotten used to them over the years."

The Huskies have a way of meeting those challenges. They upset Duke in last year's NCAA title game. They beat Duke again early this year. They've beaten Arizona and Texas. They've won 47 of their last 52 games. After Saturday's impressive 92-71 win at Georgetown, they've won a Big East-record 13 straight conference road games.

Oh, and there's one other fact that might provide UConn with a little incentive: Last year at about this time, the Huskies were 19-0 when Syracuse came into Hartford and handed them their first loss of the season. Calhoun said he isn't interested in revenge. He wants his young team to continue its quest for consistency.

"We have not been as consistent," Calhoun said, "but you can't take Ricky Moore and Richard Hamilton (two of last year's leaders) away and expect to be the same team. So if we can come out and play as well as we did against Georgetown, win or lose, I'll be very happy. Because in the second half we were very, very good."

The Huskies are at their best when point guard Khalid El-Amin is making creative plays. But at times, their senior big men, Kevin Freeman and Jake Voskuhl, haven't played with the same intensity as they did in the NCAA Tournament last year. They should have no trouble being fired up for tonight's game.

The Orangemen returned all five starters from last year's team. They have three solid senior starters in point guard Jason Hart, center Etan Thomas (fourth in the country in shot-blocking) and small forward Ryan Blackwell, who averaged 11.9 points and 8.2 rebounds. Buffalo native Damone Brown, a junior forward, averages 12.9 points and 6.9 rebounds.

They have their deepest squad in recent memory, with six players averaging at least nine points. Seven different players have led them in scoring, including reserve three-point threats DeShaun Williams and Preston Shumpert.

Syracuse doesn't get much credit for it, but it's also a very sound defensive team. The Orangemen are holding opponents to 59.7 points and 37.9 percent shooting, which puts them among the top 10 in the country.

All the relevant numbers suggest the Orangemen are an elite team, a definite threat to contend for a national championship. The only other time a Boeheim team started 15-0, it went to the NCAA title game in 1986-87. The comparisons will begin in earnest if they win tonight.

"This is a big game for us," said Brown, the former Seneca High star. "This game right here is going to tell us where we stand as a team, with the Dukes and UConns and everybody like that. So I think if we go out there and play well and win, people will stop talking about who we've played, and just think of us as a good team."

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