Syracuse, 4-0, defeated a pesky Princeton team and beat two top 25 teams in two nights in the final rounds of the Coaches versus Cancer Classic. But Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has not seemed overly impressed.
"It is nice to win this tournament, but it is still early in the year," Boeheim said after Syracuse's 77-62 victory over then No. 24 Memphis in the Coaches vs. Cancer final on Nov. 19. "We had three tough games. Princeton was probably our toughest game. To have three tough games is good experience. This is a good early season win, but there is a long way to go."
Maybe Boeheim just has his eye on a larger goal.
No. 4 Syracuse not only appears to be the class of a solid Big East conference this season, but it also seems poised to make a run at a national championship. The Orange, which has returned the nucleus from a team that made the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament last season, is a veteran group that includes three players who were starters on the 2003 national championship team, which featured the freshman Carmelo Anthony. In Hakim Warrick and Gerry McNamara, the Orange has two of the top offensive talents in the nation.
Syracuse may also benefit from the possible return of the junior guard Billy Edelin, who left the team last February for unspecified personal reasons. He practiced Sunday for the first time since leaving the team. And Boeheim is expecting his four sophomores -- Louie McCroskey, Demetris Nichols, Darryl Watkins and Terrence Roberts -- to show improvement this season.
"I think this team is anxious to get back there and make a run like they did two years ago," Boeheim said. "They're very motivated. I think our younger guys, who are now sophomores, were in and out last year. They were, at best, freshmen. Now they are sophomores and are much more confident in what they are doing. They are the key to making us a better team."
But the Orange's talent and experience does not guarantee a conference title. Syracuse, No. 7 Connecticut, No. 16 Pittsburgh and No. 21 Notre Dame top a league that may be as deep as any in the country. The Big East is expected to be even better next season when Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette, DePaul and South Florida join, while Boston College departs for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"I think the intensity of play in our league in January, February and March prepares you for anything," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "People are talking about how good the Big East is going to be next year. I think we have the best league in the country right now."
Syracuse's biggest obstacle to a conference title appears to be Connecticut, the defending national champion. The Huskies lost their two top scorers from last season. Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon went to the NBA.