Syracuse shows it has heart of a contender

Syracuse was down. Way down in its 78-62 win over Villanova on Saturday at the Carrier Dome. Though it was too early to call the game due to early domination, Villanova did not appear to be in any mood to take its foot off the neck of its former Big East rival.

The road’s pitfalls trap many. Not just this season. Most seasons. That was the most prominent concern for the No. 8 Wildcats as they attempted to secure a win against an undefeated second-ranked Syracuse team on the road.

But they seemed oblivious to the doubt as they toyed with a Cuse squad that just couldn’t guard them, especially outside.

And then, the Carrier Dome erupted as Syracuse turned a 20-5 deficit into a 38-34 halftime lead with the assistance of a 22-0 first-half run that will certainly help coach Jim Boeheim’s squad earn more No. 1 votes in the new polls.

The Orange collected 3-pointers, jump shots and putbacks as Villanova crumbled. It was an impressive response by a team in a ditch.

The statistical analysis of what transpired Saturday in Syracuse, N.Y., is secondary to that moment prior to halftime. That moment when Cuse could have quit.

Teams rarely do it deliberately. But there is a psychological element that all people encounter when they’re in a bind.

In sports, some squads simply accept it. Even though they’re on the floor and competing, they’re sometimes mentally resigned to defeat. And other times, teams ignore circumstances and a 15-point gap and missed layups and turnovers and they regroup. Syracuse did that.

That intangible quality will matter more as March approaches.

We know talent alone is not enough. Kansas and Kentucky have already proved that this season. The best programs demand a nucleus that remains strong in tough times. They need grit.

The problem with the discovery of that vital characteristic is that teams aren’t certain they have it until they’re in that situation.

You can practice all day and all night, but you can’t simulate the events that breed it. You can’t reproduce the lull in a crowd that loses hope as its team wanes. You can’t create that scenario until it occurs.

And it happened to Syracuse on Saturday. Most expected a war, but Villanova reached for the knockout in the first round. That first-half push would have flattened most squads. Not this Syracuse squad.

This game provided evidence that Tyler Ennis is one of the best freshmen and point guards in the country. C.J. Fair is a likely first-round pick. Jerami Grant will probably join him next summer. And Trevor Cooney is one of the most reliable 3-point shooters in the country.

But those traits are meaningless when a team experiences the collective meltdown that Syracuse faced against the Wildcats. When everyone is missing shots and easy buckets, to whom can you turn? How will a team get out of the mess that it has made?

We’ll ask those questions often in the coming weeks and months because every team will encounter these challenges. Their ability to create success amid apparent failure will determine wins and losses, postseason positioning and tourney longevity.

Yes, numbers matter for Syracuse and everyone else.

That zone defense will continue to challenge teams to find space in the high post and establish an offense that includes more variety than an assortment of deep 3s. The Orange’s length, athleticism and skill on both ends of the floor will probably present defensive problems and offensive quandaries for upcoming ACC opponents.

It’s not possible, however, to measure a team’s resolve until it is placed into a predicament that requires it.

“We stepped up big time today,” Boeheim told reporters after the game. “This was our first real adverse situation where we were down a lot, and nothing fazed them.”

And that -- in relation to its ACC and national title aspirations -- was a critical element in Syracuse’s win, which could have been a loss if the Orange had accepted that outcome in the first half.

But they refused.