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On top, but the best?

SU basketball took different path to no. 1 ranking

So it came to pass that, 12 days before Yuletide, an early gift appeared under the tree of Syracuse University basketball fans that did not involve birds, gold, maids, dancers, lords, pipers or drummers.

Yes, the Orange were atop the national rankings, a fortunate occurrence, which had more to do with the defeats on the same Saturday of Kentucky (at the buzzer to Indiana) and Ohio State (without Jared Sullenger at Kansas) than it did with SU’s own fine play.

Still, no one argues the point that this latest Orange edition is one of the nation’s best, with a real chance to snare the program’s second NCAA championship – and at the same Final Four venue, the Superdome in New Orleans, where Melo, G-Mac, Hakim and company won it all in 2003.

So much is different now. And the differences go way beyond the well-documented Bernie Fine saga, where SU’s administration acted with both swiftness and wisdom, dismissing Fine, but resisting the urges of the self-righteous crowd to get rid of Jim Boeheim, too.

Besides, by all accounts the players, and other coaches, have absolutely nothing to do with the allegations, so punishing them made zero sense. The fact that they tuned out the circus, focused on basketball and kept on winning was pretty admirable, too.

Another main difference from ’03 is the makeup of this team. There’s no NBA lottery pick here, and there’s a good chance that none of the main guys in the rotation might stick in the pros. But it’s the depth, and variety, that’s likely to drive future opponents crazy.

Trying to guess which player will step up on a given night is a futile enterprise, but you’re almost guaranteed that one or two from the quartet of Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Dion Waiters will take over at a key point.

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