When a Syracuse Orange team starts a season loaded with All-Americans liked Derrick Coleman, Billy Owens and Stevie Thompson a number one ranking comes as no surprise. When a Syracuse Orange team starts the season rated sixth in their own conference with no apparent All-Americans on the roster and missing three of its key starters a number one ranking is a stunner. That's what gives Orange fans even more reason to celebrate this afternoon's ascent to the top spot in the basketball polls.
Twenty years separates those two cases of Syracuse officially being declared Number One and with the top ranking comes new pressure and responsibility. We know Coach Boeheim says the ranking doesn't matter. He's right in practical terms. The only way to become champion of college basketball is to win six straight games at the end of March into early April. But, weary is the head that wears the crown.
Syracuse now has St. John's and Louisville to finish the regular season and then the Big East tournament. As long as the Orange is number one each opponent will come at them with all they have hoping to punch their resume with a victory over the top team. For St. John's the win alone would make an otherwise tough year. For Louisville it would lock up an NCAA tournament bid.
Rankings at the start of March elevate the expectations of fans. The players expectations are already high. Suddenly, anything short of a national title would seem like Syracuse didn't close the deal. The Final Four is no longer enough. That's what a number one ranking does.
Highly ranked Syracuse teams have had a few NCAA missteps in the past. Remember the loss to Richmond or Vermont. Gerry McNamara remembers the Vermont game. It was played in the foothills of the Green Mountains of Vermont in Worcester, Mass. Vermont played out of its head. Gerry said last night it was the worst night of his career. As he was preparing for our weekly Orange VIP Pass show we talked NCAA's. He brought up Vermont. He was not smiling. It still smarts.
This year's team found ways to win even when it hasn't been playing well. They don't need to dwell on rankings, but they should enjoy the confidence that comes from knowing they are nearing their ultimate goal of being ranked number at the end of the season.
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