Traditional thinking by the voters in the polls dictates Arizona is the best basketball team in the nation followed by Syracuse. But personally, I think the sportswriters and coaches who vote in the two major polls have gotten it wrong. Syracuse, not Arizona, deserves to be ranked first in the nation for the following reasons.
Syracuse and Arizona both boast two wins over top 25 teams. Arizona’s wins came against Duke (7/8 in the AP/Coaches polls) and San Diego State (21/19 in the AP/Coaches). Syracuse earned their wins over Villanova (11/14 in the AP/Coaches) and Baylor (9/11 in the AP/Coaches polls).
The difference in strength of schedule between playing Duke/SDSU and Villanova/Baylor is small, however what gives Syracuse the edge here is the circumstance of these games when they were played. Arizona played SDSU very early in the season back when the Aztecs were being overlooked and appeared less intimidating. SDSU had yet to receive a single vote in the AP or coaches polls at the time that game was played. The hype and intensity of this game simply did not have the feel of two ranked teams playing each other.
Meanwhile Syracuse played Baylor for the Maui Tournament Championship. It was the third team in three days the Orange had defeated. Like the Arizona-Duke matchup, Syracuse and Villanova also clashed when both teams were in the top 10. What gives Syracuse the edge here is that the SU/Nova game came a little over a month after the Duke-Arizona matchup, with both teams looking to protect perfect 11-0 records. The extra month gave both teams better team chemistry, more experience, and increased the stakes.
It is also important to note that Syracuse-Villanova are former Big East rivals. It is hard to call this a true non-conference game for the Orange. Villanova is all too familiar with the large Syracuse crowds. The average attendance the last three times Villanova visited the Carrier Dome was 32,000. Villanova is also quite familiar with the Syracuse length and unique style of play with their 2-3 zone after having played the team twice in most years when both were members of the Big East conference.
Reason #2: Syracuse has a much stronger resume
Syracuse’s RPI wins are much better than those of Arizona’s. The Orange have wins over Villanova (5), Baylor (10), Minnesota (27), Eastern Michigan (52) and St. John’s (62). Arizona does not have a single top 25 RPI win. Duke sits at 30th and SDSU 36th. The rest of Arizona’s best RPI wins are New Mexico State (46), Michigan (75), UNLV (89), and Drexel (92). The RPI averages for each programs 6 best wins are….Syracuse average: 37 Arizona average: 61
Syracuse was ranked below Arizona (and about 6-7 other teams) in the preseason polls because of concerns involving the guard play of Ennis and Cooney. Both players entered the season unproven and were considered the biggest weakness on this Syracuse team. To make matters worse, Syracuse lacked depth at point guard and turned to Duke transfer Gbinije who had never played the position before to act as the backup point guard.
Coming in as a freshman, most fans expected Ennis to have growing pains playing big time college basketball. Those expectations turned out to be completely wrong as Ennis has been spectacular for Syracuse so far and is stealing the spotlight from Duke’s Jabari Parker as the best ACC freshman.
Last season, Cooney failed to live up to the hype as a deadly 3-point shooter. Fortunately for Syracuse fans, they only had to wait another year for the hype to turn into reality. Cooney has been a 3-point ace this season, making 50% of his shots from beyond the arc. Cooney has made more 3-pointers (43) than anyone else in the ACC.
Heading into ACC play this season, Ennis and Cooney have emerged as perhaps the best backcourt in the country. What was thought to have been the biggest weakness for Syracuse has emerged as one of their biggest strengths. Syracuse has done more than enough to prove to the AP & coaches poll voters that their concerns about the backcourt in the preseason turned out to be unfounded.
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