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Gonzaga finds 'soft' Orange hard to handle
It's hard to imagine a team playing with a greater collective will and resolve than Syracuse did in consecutive wins.

Half an hour before tipoff, Gonzaga center Robert Sacre leaned into one of those pregame huddles and shouted this critique of the Syracuse players: "I know some of those guys," Sacre said. "They're soft and a bunch of pretty boys!"

Well, I'm not here to judge the SU guys' worthiness for "The Bachelor." But soft? Sacre bleu, are you kidding? As anyone who witnessed that performance in HSBC Arena on Sunday will attest, Syracuse is anything but soft. They're harder than a biochemistry midterm, tougher and more resplendent than diamonds.

If the Orange is pulpy soft, God help the remaining 15 teams in the NCAA Tournament, because it's hard to imagine a basketball team playing with a greater collective will and resolve than Syracuse did in consecutive blowout wins here in the Buffalo subregional.

All around the country, high seeds crumpled to the Big Dance floor, exposed by giant-killers from lesser leagues. Meanwhile, despite the absence of a key starter, SU took apart both its opponents in cold, surgical fashion, making a compelling case for itself as the No. 1 team in the land.

On Friday, the top-seeded Orange drilled No. 16 Vermont. Then, shortly after high noon on Sunday, it did the same to Gonzaga, making the sport's model mid-major look like some sorry also-ran from the MAAC or MEAC.

Syracuse was supposed to be vulnerable without Arinze Onuaku, its mountainous 6-foot-9 center. But as the doubts mounted, so did the Orange players' execution and sense of purpose. Even without "AO," they played their best ball of the season.

"We definitely came in with a big chip on our shoulders," said 6-7 junior forward Wes Johnson, who had a career-high 31 points and 14 rebounds. "We saw Kansas go down and we didn't want to be the second No. 1 seed to fall. We came in trying to prove something to everybody."

They were doubted from the start, after Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf left. It took the voters until the end of the year to consider they might be the best team in America. Then, when Big East teams stumbled in the NCAAs, people wondered if SU might be overrated, too.

"I think people tend to sleep on the Big East," said Onuaku's replacement in the middle, Rick Jackson. "They say the Big East is a great conference, but I don't think they really believe that. A lot of Big East teams got knocked out, but we're here to stay."

Syracuse will have a long stay if it plays the way it did Sunday. The Orange did everything well. Its signature 2-3 zone drives teams to distraction. If anyone looked soft, it was Matt Bouldin, the Zags' leading scorer, who didn't score in the first half.

Everyone talks about SU's zone, but its offense is terrific, too. Players don't over handle the ball. They find open shooters. The big men are good passers. It's no wonder they lead the nation in field-goal percentage and are in the Top 10 in assists. They set a school record Sunday with 12 three-pointers in an NCAA game.

Soft? Midway through the first half, with SU ahead by a point, Jackson picked up his third foul. Now the Orange was without its two biggest starters, Jackson and Onuaku. Did it fold, collapse in horror? No, it went on a 9-0 run -- Johnson culminating the run with a 19-foot jumper from the top of the key.

Gonzaga crept back within four. SU went on an 11-0 run. Andy Rautins scored the Orange's first 11 points of the second half, pushing the lead to 24. There's a place in the NBA for Rautins, who has made huge strides this year. There's a place for Johnson, too -- in the top five of the draft.

There are a lot of reasons for Syracuse's rise. It has great chemistry. But it's helpful when you can put one player (Flynn) into the top of the draft and bring in a guy who might be even better (Johnson).

The only thing soft about Johnson is his touch. He has range and an NBA scorer's ability to create space for his shot with quickness and a subtle fall-away. He'll be a very good pro if he comes out, and the chances of him staying are the same as Boeheim showing up in Salt Lake City with a '70s-style Afro.

One year was sufficient for Johnson to create a legend on The Hill, as Carmelo Anthony did seven years ago. Johnson played two years at Iowa State, then transferred to SU and sat out last season. His teammates knew from practice that he was an emerging star.

"He told me he could jump," said forward Kris Joseph. "But I didn't believe him. Then practice started and he was scoring at will and having his way. I knew he was a great player from there."

Johnson was hobbled for much of February. He fell on his hip against Providence. Two games later, on Feb. 10, he hurt his shooting hand against UConn. Johnson said he couldn't tie his shoes for awhile. It showed when he suffered through a six-game shooting slump. In his last three games, Johnson averaged 24.3 on 60 percent shooting.

"He's just getting back," Boeheim said. "If he hadn't had this injury, he would be up at an even higher level than he is now."

So the star player is coming off an injury, the big center is still out with a quadriceps injury, and still Syracuse gives Buffalo the most dazzling two-day performance we've seen since the town began hosting subregionals a decade ago.

Just imagine how it might have gone if they knew they'd been called a soft bunch of pretty boys.

"I didn't hear that," Jackson said. "But I'm so soft that I'm moving on, and he's going home. Maybe we'll see him next year."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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