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On top, but the best?

SU basketball took different path to no. 1 ranking

Go inside, and instead of the confused, overwhelmed Fab Melo of his freshman year, you’re getting a slimmed-down, supple big man who’s a consistent inside force with the help of Baye Moussa Keita.

Every other game, there’s something quite good from C.J. Fair and James Southerland. And while freshmen Rakeem Christmas and Michael Carter-Williams are still getting used to the speed of the college game, their contributions are growing.

Add it up, and that’s 10 solid players, far more than the cores of Boeheim’s best past teams. Better yet, they play defense real well.

This depth gives SU the freedom to either go with the tried-and-true 2-3 zone or, at any opportune moment, spring a full-court press that can be quite lethal. Active hands have produced a team that leads the nation in steals, and Melo and Keita are good for a few blocks in the paint.

Oh, and the offense is good, too. Without the need to depend on a single star to produce baskets, SU has the luxury of waiting to see who gets the hot hand, and then riding it. Even the free-throw shooting is inching up, better than 68 percent this year (66.5 percent a year ago), and only because Jardine and Melo, with their bricks, drag the numbers down more than five percentage points.

What to take from all this? Perhaps it’s a lesson, painfully learned by Boeheim two years ago when a similar prize was for the taking…and Arinze Onuaku got hurt in the Big East Tournament, leaving SU vulnerable in the round of 16 to Butler in a wild NCAA affair where most of the other favorites fell early before Duke held off Butler at the end.

Prior to that, and even in ’03, SU’s train of thought was that, with long TV time-outs, a deep roster wasn’t really needed, that as long as five to seven core players were present (and no one got in foul trouble), great things could happen.

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