Syracuse, a team playing without its best big man and with a bounty of questions about its defense coming into the NCAA Tournament, stands two wins from the Final Four.
The No. 1-seeded Orange (30-4) vacuumed up another tournament opponent Sunday afternoon, devouring No. 8 seed Gonzaga, 87-65, with a ferocious display of defense and three-point shooting.
Two games at HSBC Arena have proved what Syracuse dropped hints about throughout the season: The Orange is talented enough to display another national championship banner in the Carrier Dome.
The Orange can take another step to the Final Four in Indianapolis with a victory Thursday over No. 5-seeded Butler in the West Regional Sweet 16 in Salt Lake City. With Kansas now bounced from the tournament, Syracuse is one of the front-runners for the national championship.
"It's starting to get real," junior forward Wesley Johnson said. "We have to keep up the intensity and everything else will take care of itself."
Few players in the country, if any, are more talented than Johnson, who posted a career-best 31 points while inhaling 14 rebounds. He also shot 11 of 16 from the field and 4 of 6 from three-point range. Andy Rautins scored 24 points, including 5 of 9 from beyond the arc. Rautins, son of former Syracuse guard Leo Rautins, led a second-half charge in which the Orange extended a 15-point halftime lead to 32 with 11:56 left. All told, Syracuse drained 12 of 25 shots from beyond the arc.
"I thought we would have to play great to have a chance against this team and in this building and we certainly didn't and they have a lot to do with it," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "I thought all along that watching [Jim Boeheim's] team that they've got a real chance to advance on and win this whole thing."
The method of Syracuse's March Madness has been its suffocating 2-3 zone defense and three-point shooting, nothing more intricate or eye-catching than that. But at Syracuse, style is always relevant and in first- and second-round wins over Vermont and the Zags, the Orange has never been more picturesque or dominant.
"I told Mark [Few] this is as well as we played all year," said Boeheim, Syracuse's Hall of Fame coach. "It was a tremendous performance from our guys."
This was, after all, a Gonzaga team that has made its reputation on slaying highly ranked teams over the last decade and padded its resume this season with victories over Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Oklahoma and Illinois.
But the Bulldogs (27-7) never had a chance Sunday. The 65 points scored by the Zags are the team's fewest since scoring 41 in a 35-point loss to Duke on Dec. 19.
"We try to play with a chip on our shoulder whenever we go out there," Syracuse junior point guard Scoop Jardine said. "It was a team that was doubted in the beginning of the year. Every time we go out here we try to take it one game at a time and play Syracuse basketball."
Gonzaga hit only 41.7 percent from the floor and missed 18 of 21 three-pointers against a zone defense that doesn't offer many open opportunities. Leading scorer Matt Bouldin came into the game averaging 15.8 points but didn't make his first field goal until only 16 minutes were left in the game. The Orange was able to shadow Bouldin and Steven Gray more because Demetri Goodson, who was 0 for 5 Sunday, isn't a consistent shooter.
"It hurts," said Bouldin, who finished with eight points on 3-of-13 shooting and was 0 of 6 from three-point range. "We knew coming in that they had a great team. I give them a lot of credit."
Said freshman point guard Brandon Triche: "It starts with defense for us. We got out to the shooters and stopped guys from going by us. We knew Goodson really wasn't a shooter so we backed off him so we closed out on Bouldin and Gray with a high hand."
The Orange blew away Vermont and Gonzaga by an average of 22.5 points, which is even more impressive considering it is playing without senior center Arinze Onuaku, who missed both games with a right quadriceps injury.
"We knew coming in we wouldn't have our big guy, so we knew we would have to step up on both ends of the floor," said sophomore forward Kris Joseph, who filled in for Onuaku in the starting lineup and had seven rebounds against Gonzaga.
"We really want to win for him. As much as this is for our coach and for us, he's part of the team and we want to win for him."
Syracuse appeared to be in trouble when center Rick Jackson picked up his third foul with 8:58 left in the first half and the Orange clinging to a 22-21 lead. But the Orange went on a 9-0 run to stretch the lead to 31-21. After Gonzaga was called for goaltending on a layup by Triche, the Orange took a 38-28 lead with 2:34 remaining in the half. The advantage didn't dip below double digits the rest of the game.
Syracuse didn't seem to miss Onuaku in Buffalo.
"They're probably the best team we've played," Bouldin said.
After the blowout was secure, Johnson put up four fingers toward the Syracuse fans seated behind the team's bench.
"We have four games left," he said.