Before halftime, top-seeded Syracuse had turned its game against Vermont into a clinic. During a decisive 35-7 spurt to start the game, point guard Scoop Jardine scored eight points off the bench, the most flamboyant an ankle-breaking crossover dribble past Vermont's Nick Vier for a layup and a foul.
It was a play that sent HSBC Arena, mostly swimming in Orange, into quite a tizzy. Even the usually pensive Jim Boeheim broke into a few smiles as the Orange cruised to a 79-56 victory Friday night in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Playing in front a sea of Orange fans in HSBC Arena who made the relatively short drive from Central New York, Syracuse proved why it was awarded a No. 1 seed.
The Orange faithful can stick around until Sunday, when Syracuse will meet Gonzaga at 12:10 p.m.
West Virginia will take on Missouri 30 minutes after the Syracuse game.
Just like that, Boeheim's quest for a second national championship has begun.
A year after losing starters Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf, the Orange showed why another national title could be in the cards for its Hall of Fame coach.
Five Syracuse players finished in double figures led by junior Wesley Johnson's 18 points. Rick Jackson had 12 and Andy Rautins and Scoop Jardine each had 11 for the Orange. In its 33rd NCAA Tournament appearance, the Orange raced to a 35-14 first-half lead. Then wandering time kicked in against the Catamounts (29-10), the America East Tournament champions. Boeheim began taking his starters out with five minutes left in the game.
The coach's quest for his second national championship began without its big man in the middle.
Senior Arinze Onuaku, who is recovering from a right quadriceps injury, does not overwhelm you with huge numbers aside from his shooting percentage which is the highest in school history. But it's his presence in the middle that makes Syracuse's 2-3 zone defense so effective. The 6-foot-9, 261-pound Onuaku clogs the lane, often times negating penetration. Onuaku missed Friday night's game and will likely sit out Sunday's game against Gonzaga.
"His presence is going to carry us," Syracuse small Johnson said. "He's getting better. Unfortunately he's not going to be able to play [against Vermont]."
When the team entertained fans during practice on Thursday at HSBC Arena, Onuaku observed from the sidelines in a sweat suit.
"Him being on the sideline and being the leader is going to help us," Johnson said. "If we keep winning, he'll eventually get back to playing. Other than that, him being on the sideline and around us is going to uplift us and really carry us throughout the tournament, hopefully."
If the Orange continues in the tournament, it will need Onuaku. The West Region is loaded with teams with size, starting with No. 2 seed Kansas State and No. 3 Pittsburgh, which both advanced into the tournament's second round. Onuaku averaged 10.5 points, 5.1 rebounds this year and is shooting 64.8 percent for his career.
"He's so physical and so strong there in the middle, takes up so much space," Boeheim said. "He's a big part of our defense and on offense, same thing. He's a guy you have to account for. Sometimes some teams have to double-team him which opens up things for other guys. But he's a very good low-post offensive player and defensively he's a physical presence out there."
Against Vermont, Syracuse started 6-7 sophomore Kris Joseph in place of Onuaku and moved junior Rick Jackson into Onuaku's spot at center. Jackson, the starter at power forward, also serves as the team's backup center.
"We played that lineup 60 or 70 percent of the time this year," Boeheim said. "We think it's an effective lineup. But without Arinze, we don't have the depth and size that's been very helpful to us all year long."
Indeed, Onuaku was one of seven players who averaged 20 minutes or more and now the rotation is only six players.
"It changes how we can play, how we can attack the game," Boeheim said. "With Ricky started at forward, we have a backup center who is in the game and used to playing."
But Boeheim likes the fact that Jackson has experience in the middle.
"[With] our starting lineup, the difference when most teams lose a starter, they're bringing in a guy that's playing 15-20 minutes or so," Boeheim said. "We're bringing in a guy that played 30 minutes a game."