I’ll be honest with you: when Syracuse is a high seed in the tournament, I get very little joy at watching the amazing upsets that annually bedevil the power teams and delight audiences everywhere. Watching Villanova play utterly awful basketball and require a borderline miracle to escape Robert Morris wasn’t fun for me, nor was watching Vanderbilt crap out against Murray State. And although I was happy to see Georgetown lose (ten bonus points for my bracket!), the way they absolutely got blown out of the water by a MAC team left me with a feeling of serious unease.
The reason the joy is missing this year is because it’s so easy to project Syracuse onto those other power teams and envision us struggling in the same way. If we hadn’t stumbled at the end, and if AO wasn’t MIA, none of this would be a concern. If this were two weeks ago, I would have us in the Elite Eight without breaking a sweat. But things are the way they are, and I’m having a major crisis of confidence.
Watching the Big East nearly go 0-4 on opening day didn’t help matters. I expected Marquette to lose early, but the fact that Notre Dame, GTown, and Nova all laid eggs as well was a shock. It leads me to doubt a lot of the “body of work” arguments buttressing the claim that Syracuse is a dominant team. What if all those Big East teams we’ve been beating all year were overrated? We’ve already seen that our wins against UNC and Memphis were meaningless. Where does this new development leave our resume?
I still expect us to roll over Vermont with relative ease. Even Kansas took 30 minutes before they laid the hammer down on Lehigh, so I’m not going to freak out if we get off to a slow start. But after that first game I see things as completely up in the air. I can’t see us dominating any team after Vermont, and any game will be easily losable. We’re asking Rick Jackson to play nearly 80 minutes this weekend without getting into any foul trouble at all. That’s mission impossible. Meanwhile DeShonte Riley — regardless of his potential — has looked nothing but clueless in every game he’s appeared in this year. When he’s in the game we will be ineffective on both ends of the court. I would frankly rather see Kris-Jo and Wes hold down the front line and let Mookie Jones get minutes at the 3.
Then again, a return by AO in the second weekend is certainly plausible, and if he’s close to 100% and we’ve played well in the first two games, then my spirits will change dramatically. At that point I’ll be able to buy the concept that we’re a major favorite. At that point the ever-vital momentum will be back on our side. Currently, however, I’m filled with concern, and I won’t believe in an AO return until I actually see him on the court.
One interesting result of the chaos of the opening day: I’m scoring better in our “Pick With Your Heart” bracket then I am in my “real” bracket over at ESPN.com. Embarrassing, but somehow predictable.