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Motivated Syracuse plays like a No. 1 seed <br> Fast start too much for Vermont

Maybe it was watching Villanova get taken into overtime by Robert Morris before surviving on Thursday. It could have been Georgetown's stunning loss to Ohio later in the opening day of the NCAA Tournament. Or perhaps it was seeing a couple of its Big East brethren, Marquette and Notre Dame, bow out as No. 6 seeds in the opening day.

Whatever the reason, Syracuse did not play like some indifferent, overconfident No. 1 seed late Friday night. The Orange played with passion, purpose and precision pretty much from the opening tip, carving up an overmatched Vermont team, 79-56, in a first-round game in the West subregional in HSBC Arena.

During the Thursday interviews, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim had seemed more animated about the subject of expanding the tournament to 96 teams than any worries he might have about Vermont. And with good reason. In the end, Syracuse fans anguished over nothing. Despite the absence of Arinze Onuaku, the Orange justified its top seed and played like a contender.

I'm sure Boeheim pointed out the stumbles of the other Big East teams, but the Orange might not have needed any prodding. It has been underestimated since the start of the season, when pundits assumed SU would slip back to the middle of the conference pack after Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf left early.

The Orange was not happy to arrive in Buffalo on a two-game losing streak. Rick Jackson, the senior big man, acknowledged that a No. 1 seed was destined to lose to a 16 at some point. But not this top seed, Jackson asserted.

Of course, this top seed had an unusual advantage: a roaring, partisan home crowd. I've been to a lot of first-round NCAA tourney games in my time, but I've never seen a top seed receive the sort of greeting that the Orange did when it walked onto the floor for the start of Friday's game. Generally, the fans at a "neutral court" site warm to the lowly 16th seed. They cheer their every mundane achievement, hoping to be present for a historic NCAA surprise. The Buffalo crowd booed Vermont. It was a sea of orange.

The fans seemed to be expecting a performance and Syracuse didn't let them down during one of the most exhilarating runs you'll see in one of these first-round mismatches. Even when the favorite wins, it often plays indifferently in the early going, as if waiting for the underdog to snap them to attention.

The Orange needed no such awakening. SU went on an early 15-2 run, executing the offense to near-perfection and suffocating the Catamounts with its signature 2-3 zone defense. Wes Johnson, a 6-8 junior forward who will almost surely enter the NBA draft this year, was terrific as usual. Johnson hit a three-pointer during the run, then swatted a shot all the way to halfcourt at the other end, leading to a Syracuse layup.

It got even better. Leading by 15-8, the Orange went on a 20-2 run to take a 35-10 lead. Scoop Jardine, the junior guard from Philadelphia, ended the run with a crossover dribble that nearly screwed his hapless defender, Nick Vier, into the Arena floor. Jardine was fouled on the play, too. He sat under the basket after scoring, a huge smile on his face, looking up at the video board above center court. The crowd was on its feet, watching the replay and roaring its approval.

Well, they are only kids. Once it assumed that 35-10 lead, the Orange got momentarily giddy and began playing to the crowd. Andy Rautins threw up a long lob to Johnson, who missed a slam dunk. Marqus Blakely, Vermont's star forward, raced the other way and threw down a dunk of his own.

Boeheim called timeout at that point, evidently chagrined at his team for straying from its typically refined and controlled style of basketball -- a style that put them in the top 10 in the country in field-goal percentage, assists and steals.

The Blakely dunk elevated the Catamounts, who ended the first half on a 9-0 run -- four of them coming on two more breakaway dunks by Blakely. On Thursday, Johnson had complimented Blakely by calling him an athletic "freak" and saying he was capable of playing for anyone in the Big East. SU came out for the second half with a renewed sense of purpose. Boeheim has a way of getting a team's attention. Rautins hit a couple of three-pointers, then freshman Brandon Triche buried a three of his own, Jackson scored on a follow, and just like that, Syracuse had the lead back up to 19.

No. 1 seeds don't generally make statements in first-round games. They do what's necessary to get by. But this SU team was motivated to show the world that it deserved its seeding, and that it didn't put up such gaudy numbers in an elite league by accident.

The Big East might be a little more vulnerable than people realized. At this point, the Big 12 looks to be the best conference. But the point of this exercise is to determine the best team. Syracuse looked like a genuine title contender Friday night. If it gets Onuaku back healthy, look out.

Look out, period.


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