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Pitoniak: Orange could go deep

The glass-half-empty crew is quick to remind us that Syracuse started off 18-0 last year, too, only to stumble home to a 27-8 finish and a loss in the second round of the NCAAs.

But unless this team suffers a rash of injuries, I really don't see history repeating itself this season and post-season.

It's pretty apparent this team is far superior to last year's crew. It's far deeper in talent and experience, and a lot more mature and unselfish, especially on offense.

The biggest reasons behind the Orange upgrade are two guys who looked like they might not be back this year after underachieving freshmen campaigns - guys by the name of Deon Waiters and Fab Melo.

Waiters has established himself as SU's best player, a powerful, speedy, intrepid guard who has accepted his role as sixth man and who one day will be practicing his craft in the NBA.

After a 2010-11 season in which he averaged just 6.6 points per game and constantly butted heads with Coach Jim Boeheim, Waiters has started to grow up. Being a starter is an ego thing, and the 6-foot-4, 215-pound guard from Philly still struggles a bit with the fact he has yet to open a game for the Orange 52 contests into his college career. But rather than obsess about it, he's making the most of his playing time, averaging 12.9 points and three assists in 22 minutes per game.
Waiters admits he contemplated transferring after his tumultuous freshman season, but his mom intervened. "I didn't raise no quitter," Monique Brown told her son. And that was the end of that discussion.

Interestingly, Waiters is averaging more minutes than any of SU's guards, including starters Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche. Only forward Kris Joseph is logging more time than Waiters.

While Waiters is in contention for both Big East sixth-man and player-of-the-year honors, Melo is in contention for the nation's most improved player award. Yes, his stats may seem modest - 7.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. But they don't tell the full story of how he has made a quantum leap over last year. The loss of 30 pounds coupled with the addition of another year to acclimate to a new culture and a new level of basketball obviously have benefitted the 7-foot center from Brazil.

Melo's shot-blocking presence at the back of SU's trademark zone has enabled the Orange guards to take more chances and the result has been a boatload of steals that have resulted in a boatload of easy baskets. Fab still has a ways to go. The past two games he hasn't done a good job of handling the pounding and goading that big men are subjected to in Big East play and has gotten into foul trouble. He needs to control his temper better and avoid being whistled for retaliation. But we need to remember that he's still a basketball neophyte and he will learn to handle such situations better down the road.

We've also see dramatic improvement from James Southerland and C.J. Fair, two more of the bench crew that prevent any drop off when Boeheim goes to the bullpen.
SU's reserve power was on display in full force during Wednesday night's 79-66 victory against Villanova in Philadelphia in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the final score indicated. Ten different players scored as the Orange built a 43-24 halftime lead. Syracuse's backups - led by Waiters' 20 and Southerland's 15 - accounted for 47 points against Nova. For the season, SU is averaging 80.6 points per game, with the starting lineup contributing 43 points and the reserves 37.6.
Given the depth of talent, the terms "starters" and "reserves" have little meaning because there's really not much difference between the two units on this roster. It's as if Boeheim has two starting lineups. That's how deep this team is.

The No. 1-ranked Orange should tie the school record for consecutive victories to open the season when it hosts Providence Saturday in the Carrier Dome and could break the mark Monday at Pitt. After that it plays games at Notre Dame and Cincinnati, home vs. West Virginia and at St. John's. So, it's conceivable that the Cuse could be 24-0 heading into its Feb. 8 home game against Georgetown.

SU's schedule is backloaded with challenging games, including home-and-away contests vs. Big East rivals UConn and Louisville.

The Orange men aren't going to go unbeaten - nobody does any more - and they could very well lose two or three games down the stretch.

But given their talent, depth, strong defense, and unselfish offensive play, I don't see this team suffering any prolonged slump.

This is a club built to make a run at a national championship - a much deeper version of the squad that would have won it all two years ago had Arinze Onuaku not suffered a season-ending injury just before the NCAA tournament.
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