SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Syracuse is ready to put an exclamation point on a season that won't soon be forgotten — on and off the court.
The sting of just their second loss of the season fully behind them after two hard practices, the Orange (31-2), the Big East regular-season champions, were a confident bunch on Sunday night after being tabbed the top seed in the East. They will play Big South champion UNC Asheville (24-9) in Pittsburgh on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"You work hard all year long. This is a special moment for our team," fifth-year guard Scoop Jardine said. "Now it starts over. We've got to try to win six games."
It's only the third time the Orange have been a top seed, but the second time in three years. Syracuse is one of nine Big East teams to make the tournament.
"Obviously, to be a one seed is a great accomplishment for these guys," said coach Jim Boeheim, 45-27 in 28 previous trips to the NCAA tournament. "There's no easy games, and that's the way it should be."
The previous time Syracuse was seeded No. 1 was just two seasons ago, and the Orange lost to Butler without hulking center Arinze Onuaku after easily beating Vermont and Gonzaga. Onuaku suffered a season-ending injury in the Big East tournament, leaving the Orange without the anchor of their 2-3 zone defense and a scoring presence inside. In the end, they lost 63-59 to those Bulldogs in Salt Lake City.
Syracuse, which will enter the tournament healthy, is 3-0 all-time against Asheville, including an 81-63 triumph in December 2003 at the Carrier Dome, the last time the two teams met.
"We're going out there ready to go," Boeheim said. "That's a positive thing. We didn't play well in New York and we lost. When you lose a game and you haven't lost many, I think you pay attention a little bit more. I think we realize what we have to do to be successful."
His players concur.
"We won 31. We know what we're capable of doing," Jardine said. "We've just got to continue to believe in our defense and play at a high level and I think we'll be fine."
After earning a trip to the NCAA tournament a year ago, Asheville entered the season as the heavy favorite to win the Big South and lived up to the pressure. It won the regular-season title and the conference tournament.
The Bulldogs are a senior-laden team led by guard Matt Dickey, conference player of the year. All five starters scored in double digits in their 80-64 win over VMI for the conference tournament title.
"UNC Asheville is, I think, a very, very good team," Boeheim said. "They've been very consistent. You can tell by the scores. Tough first game. They're pretty good."
As are the Orange. After a loss at Notre Dame in late January, a game it played without 7-foot center Fab Melo because of academic issues, Syracuse won 11 in a row and finished the regular season with a school-record 30 victories before losing 71-68 to Cincinnati on Friday night in the semifinals of the Big East tournament.
"It's a great feeling just seeing your name up there as a one seed," said Syracuse's leading scorer, senior forward Kris Joseph, who had two subpar games at Madison Square Garden while coping with a fever. "But that could also mean nothing if we just go out there (and don't play well). It's just about us going out there, executing on both ends of the floor, and playing good basketball."
What has been just as remarkable as their performance on the floor has been the Orange's ability to maintain focus on basketball during a season of turmoil away from the court.
Last week, school officials said the university had more than a year ago self-reported possible violations of its internal drug policy by former members of the team and that the NCAA was investigating. None of the current members of the team was involved.
That was the culmination of a season that began with the dismissal of associate head coach Bernie Fine after two former ball boys accused him of sexually molesting them in the 1980s. While charges have yet to be filed against Fine, he was fired in late November. Boeheim and the university also are facing a defamation suit filed by the ball boys — Bobby Davis and stepbrother Mike Lang.
Through it all, the players have remained on an even keel, seemingly unfazed by anything. Don't expect that mindset to change at this juncture. The school's second national championship — the Orange won the first in 2003 with star Carmelo Anthony — is squarely in their sights.
"You only get one shot at this," said sophomore guard Dion Waiters, who hit seven 3-pointers for a career-high 28 points against Cincinnati. "We just want to see them (Jardine and Joseph) leave on a great moment. It'll be something you can tell your grandkids. We're trying to become a part of history."
Asheville will make just its third NCAA appearance. It received bids in 2006 and 2011, as well. The Bulldogs also were a No. 16 seed a year ago and took on a Big East team, losing to Pittsburgh.
Syracuse went 17-1 in the Big East to capture the regular-season title and has been ranked in the top five nationally all season.
"It's another game," Jardine said. "You don't want to put too much pressure on yourself. It doesn't matter where you play. We just have to play better."
If Syracuse wins, it will face either eighth-seeded Kansas State (21-10) or No. 9 Southern Mississippi (25-8).
"The success of this team in the regular season is probably a little bit underrated, underappreciated," Boeheim said. "There's a lot of games they could have lost and didn't lose. I think they deserve an awful lot of credit for the year that they've had.
"It's been an amazing year."
On and off the court.
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