Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - When it was announced Syracuse and Pittsburgh would make the move to the ACC this season, expectations were that the two former Big East powers would be immediate contenders in their new conference.
There is just over a month remaining before March Madness and, suffice to say, the Orange and the Panthers have each done much more than contend, they have dominated.
That is especially true of Syracuse. The perennial favorite in the former Big East looks right at home in the ACC, piling up wins no matter what teams line up on the other side. The Orange (20-0, 7-0 ACC) are ranked No. 2 in the nation - a spot they've held for two months - with the only team standing in their way the also-undefeated Arizona Wildcats.
As always for coach Jim Boeheim's club, the success has been built on all- consuming defense. At this point just about every coach, player, broadcaster and any other person who has even a slight interest in the college game knows about Syracuse's 2-3 zone. Yet that doesn't mean every opponent is ready for it.
This season, the Orange are ranked sixth in the ACC in scoring defense (57.8 ppg) while leading the conference with nine steals per game. Their zone attack gives teams very few passing lanes, forces contested jumpers and keeps talented one-on-one scorers from being able to take over games. Just ask Boston College's Olivier Hanlan, who is second in the ACC in scoring. Against Syracuse he managed only 13 points on 2-of-7 field-goal shooting.
Of course, the Eagles are not one of the premier programs in the ACC, but Syracuse has taken care of teams held in that esteem as well, including a 57-45 triumph over North Carolina earlier this month.
"Syracuse, so far this year, has played better than anybody else," Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams said of the Orange's first year in the ACC. "Everybody's going to have to play their best. You're not going to beat Syracuse unless your playing to the top of your potential."
Williams also had some words of warning for his fellow ACC coaches about Syracuse's brand of defense.
"There are other teams that play zone, but they probably play it as well as anybody. It is an adjustment for everybody (in the conference)," Williams said.
While defense has been the key, the Orange's balance and disciplined style on offense also has been critical to their dominance. They are last in the ACC in turnovers (9.5 per game), so opponents, who are already getting fewer possessions against them, rarely make up for it by forcing the Orange into mistakes.
All of the impressive numbers and accolades have come despite a sizable amount of roster turnover from last year's Final Four squad. Boeheim no longer has Michael Carter-Williams to run the point, James Southerland to splash in 3- pointers or Brandon Triche to provide leadership. However, the players who stepped in are playing as if they have been starting for years.
Freshman point guard Tyler Ennis (12.3 ppg, 5.3 assists per game, 2.5 spg) has transitioned to the point nicely, without any prior college experience. Trevor Cooney (13.2 ppg, 40.1 3-point percentage) has gone from bench-warmer to 3- point marksman, and Jerami Grant (12.4 ppg, 6.8 rebounds per game) has provided the size and athleticism off the bench that Southerland brought to the table last season.
Leading the way for the new guys is C.J. Fair. A versatile scoring forward, who led the team in points scored a season ago, Fair (16.7 ppg, 6 rpg) can handle the ball and knock down shots from anywhere on the floor, while proving to be a matchup nightmare for opposing backcourts and frontcourts, depending on where he is positioned.
While Fair and Co. have stolen the national spotlight, Pittsburgh has been quietly putting together one of the best seasons among other ACC teams. Although the Panthers fell to Duke on Monday, they are still 18-3 overall, in possession of the No. 18 spot in the AP Top 25 and tied with the Blue Devils for third in the conference standings.
Just like the Orange, the Panthers have brought a dedication to the defensive end of the floor from their days in the Big East. They are currently 15th nationally in scoring defense (61.1 ppg) while holding foes to 40.6 percent shooting.
Where they differ from the Orange is on offense. Although both teams do not turn the ball over very often, the Panthers have been efficient in other ways as well, leading the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.61) and field goal percentage (.485). Each of those marks is among the top 20 nationally.
Lamar Patterson (17.7 ppg, 4.5 apg) is certainly in the running for All-ACC honors as he has been effective on both ends for the Panthers. The 6-foot-5 swingman is fourth in the conference in scoring and fifth in assists as well as a disruptive defender. The talent in the backcourt doesn't end there, with Cameron Wright (10.8 ppg) and James Robinson (8.4 ppg, 4.2 apg) giving head coach Jamie Dixon plenty of options at the guard spots.
For all the positives, Pittsburgh has yet to really prove itself against top- tier competition, with all but one of its wins against teams from outside the RPI Top 50. It also has lost all three of its duels with ranked foes, including the 80-65 setback it suffered at home against 17th-ranked Duke.
However, Dixon was quite aware of the difficult challenges such a storied conference as the ACC would present and will continue to present.
"We have a lot of great teams to play against and a lot of great places to play at. We are fortunate," Dixon said of his team's new conference home, following his team's second league test against Virginia. "We went form a great conference to another great conference. We are excited to be a part of it."