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Orange adjusts its blinders <br> Syracuse looks past recent losses, focuses on vaunted defense

Two weeks ago, Syracuse University was 28-2 and seemed to be suspended above the rim, if not above every team in college basketball. The Orange was the No. 1 team in the country, and all was right in Central New York.

Dunks were being administered. Shots splashed consistently. Then the losing started.

From near excellence and a top ranking the Orange tumbled into a sea of doubt, losing back-to-back games, the latest one against rival Georgetown in the Big East Tournament after the Orange won the regular-season title. To make matters worse, they lost senior center Arinze Onuaku to a quadriceps injury. Syracuse (28-4) slumped back to campus to retool its at times brazen defense -- the hallmark of its dominant start -- and prepare for salvation in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

"Basically, we are just trying to look forward and look past the last two losses and get back to playing defense," junior point guard Scoop Jardine said.

There isn't much talk about an early exit or a surprising upset in the West Regional. But there is talk, however, that the Orange is undeserving of its top seed because of how its season ended. No. 2 seed West Virginia, for example, won the Big East Tournament, beating Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Georgetown along the way while the Orange was one-and-done.

Judge the entire season, Syracuse says, and not the last two games.

"I think we've proven game in and game out throughout the whole season that our body of work certainly got us to where we are right now," senior guard Andy Rautins said. "We've been proving people wrong all season. It's nothing new to us at this point."

Syracuse Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim said the Orange is top seeded for a reason.

"These guys coming out of where we started the year, to win the Big East Conference for these guys was probably as good a regular season as we have had at Syracuse," he said. "We have had a few good ones. But I think what they've accomplished this year, they've earned everything they've got, the one seed. They've earned that."

Meanwhile, No. 16 seed Vermont, the Orange's first-round opponent, doesn't seem intimidated. Perhaps some of Thursday's games give the Catamounts reason for hope. Ohio, Murray State and Old Dominion scored first-round upsets, and Robert Morris had a near miss against No. 2 seed Villanova.

"Hopefully we get a better whistle than Robert Morris did," said Vermont junior forward Evan Fjeld, dropping a not-so-subtle hint about some questionable officiating at the end of the Villanova game. "It was a great game. I feel bad for Robert Morris. They played their hearts out and just to come up so short. . . . Every high seed needs to be on the upset alert, I guess."

The Orange certainly is after losing its last two games -- to Louisville in its regular-season finale and to Georgetown at the Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden.

"We played well in our last two games on offense, we slipped a little bit on the defensive end," Boeheim said. "But Georgetown is a pretty good offensive team and so is Louisville. I'm not concerned about our last two games. This team has been consistent from the beginning of the year."

Vermont (25-9) enters the tournament having won 11 of 12 games and having one of the top mid-major players in the country in do-everything senior Marqus Blakely. The 6-foot-5 forward is the only player in the country to lead his team in scoring (17.4), rebounds (9.4), assists (3.7), blocks (1.9) and steals (2.3). He will also finish his career in the school's top three in five different categories.

"I know he's a freak," said Syracuse forward and fellow freak Wesley Johnson. "He's a great athlete. He can come into the Big East and be an impact to any team he's on in the Big East. I know that. He's an animal."

But the Orange will play without the 6-9, 261-pound Onuaku, who could miss the potential second-round matchup as well. Kris Joseph, a 6-7 sophomore, will start at power forward while 6-9, 240-pound junior Rick Jackson moves over to Onuaku's spot at center.

There isn't much of a difference in size but Boeheim is more concerned about depth. An already thin bench just got thinner.

"[Onuaku is] so physical and so strong out there in the middle, takes up so much space," Boeheim said. "He's a big part of our defense and offense, same thing. He's a guy you have to account for."


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