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Orange silences critics with strong start

The memo has come down from sports editors everywhere:

How did you miss this Syracuse basketball story?

North Carolina, Connecticut and Louisville have their rosters emptied by the NBA Draft and those high-brow programs start the season in the top 20.

Jim Boeheim loses one guy to the NBA and two others to the bush leagues and his team starts the season buried in the underworld of "Others Receiving Votes," behind the Mississippi States, Sienas and Michigans.

And you're telling me you know college basketball?

"When you lose your three leading scorers, it's automatic (to exit the Top 25) pretty much," Boeheim said. "That's the normal thing."

Boeheim rubs his right hand over his trademark furrowed brow. Ignore the worry lines and focus on the smile twisting across Boeheim's impassive face. When you are 23-1, you have time to sharpen your one-liners.

"Now, they didn't do that to North Carolina," Boeheim said, smiling. "I don't understand that."

Understand this: You could argue that Boeheim has done a Hall of Fame job with this Syracuse team, but Boeheim went into Springfield in 2005. Perhaps, after 822 career victories, three Final Fours and an NCAA title, he'll finally get a National Coach of the Year award.

He's taken a team without a single player who was ranked in the Top 50 of his recruiting class by Scout.com and has it playing this kind of basketball:

The Orange roared into Cincinnati Sunday, against a Bearcats' team that had lost one home game all season, and left the home fans grumbling because its team scored one basket in the final 12:24 of a 71-54 Syracuse victory.

"Coach knows how to pick 'em," said Syracuse senior guard Andy Rautins, a one-star recruit who has become a five-star, 3-point shooter. "He knows how to develop players.

"We came in under the radar. We lost three really key guys. But from Day One, within our team, we knew the kind of chemistry we had and the kind of talent. You put those two together, we're a dangerous team."

Go ahead and call roll: Gone from 2009 are Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris. Flynn has started 51 games at point guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves, averaging 14 points.

Devendorf played three games for the Reno Bighorns in the NBDL before he was waived. Harris was cut by the Utah Jazz, and his NBDL career has been delayed by an ankle injury.

"There are two kinds of players," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "Those that help you win, and those that don't. They've got better players. They're the best team in the country."

That starts with Rautins, the fifth-year senior who is known as a shooter (39 percent from beyond the arc) but already has three more assists than last season. He is in the backcourt with freshman Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine, who started 10 games as a freshman two years ago.

Center Arinze Onuaku is another fifth-year guy. Rick Jackson is a silo-sized, 6-foot-9 junior making 59 percent of his shots.

Then there is the guy who is making John Wall, Evan Turner, or Luke Harangody earn the Player of the Year Award: junior forward Wes Johnson.

"We probably have more experience, I'm guessing, in our top six or seven, than anybody in the league," Boeheim said.

Another pause. Another tweak from Boeheim.

"I think I did say we were going to be good, a few dozen times," he said. "A lot of times people say coaches just say that. I usually don't say that."

Not that anybody would have listened.

Why?

Because as remarkably productive as Johnson has been while averaging 16 points, nearly nine rebounds and almost two blocks, let's be honest about the player we are discussing.

Johnson played high school ball in Corsicana, Texas, a town of about 25,000 located 55 miles south of Dallas. He committed to Louisiana-Monroe but balked after a coaching change. He spent a year at The Patterson School in Patterson, N.C., where Scout.com ranked him a two-star recruit, and then played two solid seasons at Iowa State before deciding to transfer.

Not exactly the same pedigree as Carmelo Anthony or Derrick Coleman.

"It's been wonderful," Johnson said. "I've been speechless since I got here, seeing how much (Boeheim) believes in his players and how much freedom he gives them to play basketball."

Especially if they take good shots and defend like crazy in Boeheim's formidable 2-3 zone. Syracuse has shot a better percentage in all 23 of its wins and nearly outshot Pittsburgh (42.4 to 44.2 percent) in its sole loss on Jan. 2.

Johnson, Triche and Rautins are a combined eight inches longer than Flynn, Devendorf and Harris. There's nearly a 15-percentage point gap in the Orange offensive (53.1) and defensive (38.3) field goal percentages.

"I think size matters," Boeheim said.

Here we go again.

"At least in basketball," he said, with another wink.

Syracuse is definitely not who we thought they were.