Balanced Cuse yet another Big East threat

NEW YORK -- Comparing conferences has about as much meaning as rankings.

Both are good fodder for fun debate, but in college basketball, the strength of a conference should be measured by its NCAA-tournament depth, high seeds and wins in the spring.

Still, ignoring the obvious Big East domination of late would be naïve.

Now add Syracuse to the list of teams from the Big East that has risen to the challenge of knocking off an elite team. Pitt, Georgetown, Connecticut and Notre Dame have already left marks on opponents. Villanova and West Virginia may still have a day.

On this Tuesday night in New York, the Orange were the team of record. Syracuse manhandled eighth-ranked Michigan State 72-58 in the headline game of the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.

This game wasn't close. Syracuse dominated points in the paint (42-24) as Rick Jackson was superb inside with 17 points and 16 boards. Scoop Jardine took care of the perimeter advantage with a game-high 19 points. Syracuse's zone was active and disruptive and the Spartans looked lost offensively.

And what smarted Michigan State coach Tom Izzo more than anything, what made him feel embarrassed and disappointed, was how much Syracuse dominated the hustle and hard-work plays.

"We're a dangerous team when we put it together like we did," Jardine said. "We can beat anybody."

Syracuse was hardly a finished work prior to Tuesday. Jackson was consistent, but no one else was throughout the first eight games. The Orange scratched and clawed their way toward an undefeated start, but beat William & Mary by three, Michigan by three and Georgia Tech by four.

"We won here by more than we have at home," said Boeheim. "We should have lost to NC State, Detroit and Canisius. We're the same. We played the same all year. We just can't shoot and we've got to make shots. We finally did with Dion [Waiters making a 3-pointer] to get us going to get some separation."

What's different about this team than Boeheim's previous editions is the balance. There is no star, be it an NBA lottery pick or a sensational college player like Carmelo Anthony, Gerry McNamara or Wesley Johnson.

Kris Joseph may become one, but he's not yet. Jackson is a stud inside, but has had to worked hard to become a consistent rebounder and offensive put-back scorer. The freshmen -- Waiter, Fab Melo or C.J. Fair -- aren't close to being elite yet.

Jardine is scoring well and so is Brandon Triche, but they can have their off nights and it won't hurt this squad as long as there is someone else comparable. And on this team there are other options.

"We're a collection," Boeheim said. "We're playing eight guys. They're all pretty good players."

Jackson said he's feeling more comfortable scoring in the flow of the game, but he has latched on to his role as a rebounder. One thing that was noticeable Tuesday was how much he was communicating with fellow big men along the back line of the zone. That chatter led to a defense that disrupted the Michigan State offense all night long.

"I think we have a real active zone," said Jackson, the lone senior on this team. "We've got guys bouncing around and getting around screens. Sometimes our zone hasn't been as active and teams try to take 24 seconds off the clock. [Against MSU] we did a good job."

Jackson said he lost 25 pounds in the offseason and is down to 239. He does look lean and is much more effective. He's now the mentor to players like Melo and someone the rest of the team can count on nightly.

Whether or not that means the Orange can win the Big East is still to be determined. They don't have another marquee nonconference game and the Big East will start soft with three of the first four games against Providence, at Seton Hall and at St. John's with a home game against Notre Dame wedged in there. But it will change quickly with games at Pitt, home against Villanova, at Marquette and at Connecticut going into late January and into early February.

"This league is very, well, I'm very scared," Boeheim said. "I'd rather keep playing these teams. There are 10 or 11 teams in the Big East that are very scary. The whole country slid, but we haven't slid as much. Players leaving early means that it won't be like it was before. There's a lot of balance and the top teams aren't that much better."

But one thing is certain: If Syracuse plays like it did Tuesday in New York, the Orange will once again be in the mix for a high seed, a Big East title and a deep March run.