Over the years, I've found that Syracuse and Buffalo sports fans are connected by more than a 140-mile strip of interstate. They share a wary, well-earned skepticism, forever watchful of a calamity lurking around the bend.
Even after their team won the national title in 2003, many Orange fans remain fretful. There's always a crisis at hand, some new reason to doubt Jim Boeheim's coaching genius. So it was like a cruel joke when SU drew Vermont in the opening game of the NCAA Tournament.
Vermont? The same Vermont that stunned the Orange as a 13th seed five years ago? It was like ripping the bandage off an old wound, resurrecting bad memories for SU fans.
Early this week, Syracuse beat writer Mike Waters did a nice story on Tom Brennan, the chatty former Vermont coach, who reminisced about the upset in '05. Waters got bombarded by angry e-mails, asking why he would dredge up such a dark chapter in Syracuse history.
Tonight, the top-seeded Orange takes on the 16th-seeded Catamounts in the last of the four subregional games in HSBC Arena. SU fans have all day to anguish. Arinze Onuaku, the 6-foot-9 senior center, is out with a quadriceps injury. The team isn't deep to begin with, so the margin of error has narrowed.
Georgetown, their Big East brethren, was knocked off by 14th seed Ohio from the Mid-American Conference on Thursday night. Villanova needed overtime to beat 15th seed Robert Morris. The top seeds are 100-0 in the first round since the tourney expanded in 1985. Some day, a No. 1 seed is bound to fall. So there's sufficient cause for worry, if you're so inclined. Go ahead and curse the memories of Keith Smart and T.J. Sorrentine. But do you know who's not worried? Syracuse.
"Maybe a 16 will beat a 1 team some day," said SU forward Rick Jackson. "But it won't be this 1 team right here. I'll tell you that much."
Don't mistake that for cockiness. It's confidence. When you've been underestimated from the start, you don't look down on anyone. There are no McDonald's All-Americans on the roster. That's what made this Syracuse team so remarkable. Every game was a chance to prove something -- to themselves.
They rarely had a bad game, no matter the level of the opposition. You don't get to 28-4 in the Big East by taking nights off. They led the country in field-goal percentage. They were second in assists, fifth in steals, seventh in blocks. SU does everything well.
Sure, they saw what happened to Georgetown and Villanova. It got their attention. They know you can't afford to take any team for granted.
"We did that the whole season," said 6-7 forward Wesley Johnson, the Player of the Year in the Big East. "Can't look past anybody. But seeing that [Villanova] game, knowing how the NCAA Tournament is, we can't go into this game looking over anyone.
"We have to go out there and play our ball," Johnson said. "If we don't, we can end up losing. Villanova escaped. We could be doing the same thing [today]."
The players seem relaxed and ready. Boeheim, who has been roaming the sidelines in this tourney since the days when coaches wore plaid pants and those ghastly heeled shoes, doesn't seem worried in the least.
Boeheim was his typically droll self Thursday. When a New York City writer asked him to reflect back to his early days, Boeheim made fun of the guy's green shirt and said the Buffalo Irish population would be insulted. He took a shot at TV announcers who criticize "mediocre" teams in the sport. Boeheim, an ardent supporter of expanding the NCAA tourney to 96 teams, said it's not mediocrity, but balance.
The one team Boeheim didn't seemed worried about was his own. You'd have thought the Orange was getting ready to play Rutgers in January. Boeheim was asked if it's possible to keep his players from thinking about the fact that no top seed has lost a first-round game, and that they're supposed to win.
"I've never really thought about what we're supposed to do," Boeheim said, "or what people think in the few games that I've coached. We prepare to play. We get ready to play, and I don't think about those things. We just think about getting ready to play."
Onuaku is a big loss. He shoots 66.8 percent, which would lead the nation if he had enough attempts. He's a big part of the Syracuse defense. But the Orange didn't get this far by relying on one player. If SU can't beat Vermont without him, it doesn't deserve to be in the national title discussion.
The Orange has lost two in a row. One was to Louisville, in the final game ever at Freedom Hall. The other was to Georgetown, which shot 70 percent in the second half in the opener of the Big East tourney. It's not as if they went to pieces.
"They say great teams don't lose three games in a row," Jackson said, "and we've lost two, so. . . . Guys are ready. We don't want to lose the first game in the tournament."
They don't have to be great to beat Vermont. Now, if they have to play Gonzaga or Florida State without Onuaku, the worrying will really begin.