Back in late summer, when football was in full swing and Syracuse’s C.J. Fair was getting set for his senior season in basketball, he figured the Orange would field a pretty decent team despite the loss of three stars.
“I knew we’d have a good team at the end of the year, but in the summertime I didn’t think we’d be the No. 1 team in the country,” Fair said.
That’s exactly what the unbeaten Orange are — the unanimous No. 1 for the second straight week. Syracuse is on a school-record-tying 23-game winning streak atop the Atlantic Coast Conference at 10-0, but that perch seems a bit precarious with a daunting schedule looming.
Next up is a game at No. 25 Pittsburgh (20-4, 8-3) tonight inside the rowdy Petersen Events Center.
The venue and a thin roster make it likely the biggest challenge so far for Syracuse, which barely held off the Panthers 59-54 at home in mid-January before a Carrier Dome crowd of more than 30,000.
Syracuse remained one of two unbeatens in Division I with a 57-44 victory over Clemson at home on Sunday night. But Orange coach Jim Boeheim had to make some adjustments after backup center Baye Moussa Keita suffered a right knee injury late in the first half and starting center Rakeem Christmas picked up his fourth foul early in the second.
That led to an unusual lineup with 6-foot-8 Jerami Grant at center. He did OK and the Orange pulled away in the closing minutes of what had been a tight, slow-paced game, something the Orange have dealt with almost the entire season.
“Every game we have in this league is difficult,” Boeheim said.
“We’ve been in tough games. We know it will be tough. We like to run, but people are going to do what they’ve been doing. We can’t force tempo if someone wants to do this (slow the pace).”
The status of the 6-10 Keita for the Pitt game is unknown. It won’t matter. Pitt will do what it always does no matter who’s in the game for Syracuse.
“You gotta get fouls on them,” said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, who has had great success against the Orange, stopping double-digit Syracuse winning streaks twice in the past four years. “I don’t think it’ll change a lot of what we do. Unless we get foul trouble on their starting center, it won’t really change too many things.”
The Panthers are coming off a double-overtime victory over Virginia Tech at home, where they’ve suddenly become somewhat vulnerable.
They lost consecutive games to Duke and Virginia before the win over the Hokies, and that was a struggle against the ACC’s cellar-dweller, which is 1-10 in the league.
“You don’t want to lose to teams you’re supposed to beat,” Lamar Patterson said. “This team just figured out a way to grind it out and that shows big growth. That will be helpful down the line once it is tournament time.”
Pitt has some lineup concerns, too: Talib Zanna has a sore ankle and Patterson a sore thumb.
“You don’t play great every game, but we played well at the end,” Dixon said. “I thought we showed a lot of character, and that’s most important.”
The Orange’s late-game character was on display in the first meeting between the teams. Freshman point guard Tyler Ennis scored twice on driving layups and made two free throws in the final two minutes to rescue Syracuse.
“I am real confident,” Patterson said. “We want another shot at them because we let one go there. It is going to be a fun game.”