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If you hadn't known better, you'd have sworn it was Hartford, Colgate or Albany, or any of the other assorted patsies that Syracuse had swept aside during its merciless 10-game homestand at the start of the college basketball season.

But this was no sorry non-conference foe being slapped around the Carrier Dome here Monday night, in full view of 26,474 screaming fans, a national television audience and the raving, near-hysterical Dick Vitale.

It was Connecticut. You know, the defending NCAA champions. Fearsome, defiant, UConn. At long last, a legitimate test for a Syracuse team that was unbeaten but unproven in the eyes of skeptics because it hadn't played a ranked opponent.

No one will be questioning them now, not after watching the Orangemen humiliate the Huskies, 88-74, in a game that was not really that close. The game was essentially over after Syracuse went on a 16-0 run in the middle of the first half, which left the defending champs dazed.

"They came in here and handed it to us physically, and more importantly, they took us out of the game mentally," said UConn coach Jim Calhoun. "I thought we'd respond better, but obviously we didn't."

That's what was so startling. It wasn't that the Huskies lost, it was that they seemed so out of character in doing it. On their run to the national title a year ago, they were famous for their ability to stand up to a physical challenge.

People expected them to come in here and remind Syracuse who was the real king of the Big East. Instead, it was the Orangemen who made the physical statement, who relentlessly attacked the basket, who swarmed to the boards and ran at every opportunity. Now UConn is 2-3 in the league and it's pretty clear that the Orangemen (6-0) truly are the team to beat.

"Last year, we got pushed around by them," said senior point guard Jason Hart. "We were the softies out there. I think we played a lot more aggressive, offensively and defensively, and we played physical. We did the things they like to do -- push 'em around, bang, get up in their faces."

Hart set the tone with his withering man-to-man defense on UConn's charismatic point guard, Khalid El-Amin. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim switched out of his zone early when El-Amin got loose for a couple of quick three-pointers. Hart shut down El-Amin from then on, holding him to nine points on 3-for-13 shooting.

Hart's name doesn't often come up in discussions of the country's top point guards. He evidently saw Big Monday as an opportunity to further introduce himself to the nation's hoop followers. He had 14 points, eight assists and five steals. He talked trash to El-Amin. He glared at the UConn bench when Calhoun called timeouts in a desperate, futile attempt to stop the big run.

"He wanted to go out there and make a definite statement about himself," said center Etan Thomas, who dominated inside with 15 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks. "He's one of the top point guards in the nation, but he doesn' get the recognition he deserves. Tonight, he proved a lot of people wrong."

They all proved people wrong. Once you see this Syracuse team up close, you understand it's the real deal. The Orangemen have the three seniors (Hart, Thomas and Ryan Blackwell), which is rare for an elite program nowadays. They have an emerging star in Buffalo native Damone Brown, who had a terrific floor game. In freshman DeShaun Williams, who had 10 points in 13 minutes, they have a player Boeheim says could be the best he's ever had.

The Orangemen had six players score in double figures. They have had at least four players do it in 11 consecutive games. They had 25 offensive rebounds, and Boeheim said he hasn't seen his team rebound so well since the Derrick Coleman days.

The Huskies have been the class of the Big East in recent years, but Monday nightit was clear the balance of power had shifted.

All the AP voters who had been grudging with their votes during Syracuse's unbeaten run have to be reconsidering their position now. The Orangemen are the only unbeaten team left. They just blew out the defending national champs.

If they're not No. 1, who is?

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