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Behind Enemy Lines: TNIAAM & The Syracuse Orange

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To preview tonight's game between the Villanova Wildcats and the Syracuse Orange, we chatted with Sean Keeley, who runs the fantastic Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician blog for SB Nation. We talked Syracuse's improbable undefeated run, their ascent to #1, their surprise bolt to the ACC, and much more.


You're a rival, but I can't help but be impressed. It feels like it's been a few years in a row now that Syracuse just hasn't missed a beat. How is Boeheim doing it?

I think what we're witnessing is the end result of two very important factors. The first is that Mike Hopkins has peaked as an assistant coach. He's responsible for getting a good chunk of the talent you see in orange into Syracuse and he's also doing a helluva job making them better. When asked what the difference maker has been for Fab Melo between his freshman and sophomore season, Scoop Jardine said, "Mike Hopkins, Mike Hopkins, Mike Hopkins." Boeheim is the godfather but Hopkins is the guy the players deal with on a day-to-day basis (along with Adrian Autry and Gerry McNamara). The fact that he's the head-coach-in-waiting doesn't hurt either.

The other thing has been the re-commitment to facilities in the form of The Melo Center. The state-of-the-art basketball-focused athletics center helped SU compete with a lot of other top programs when it came to the all-important facilities discussion. Plus, it doesn't hurt to have a building with Carmelo Anthony's name on it. He appeals to guys who want to go pro because they know SU can make that happen but he's also a national champion.

There's more to it, I'm sure, but those are the two things that seem to correlate to this recent upswing.

More fun with Sean after The Jump.

Is Syracuse really the best team in the country, or are they ranked #1 because the teams ahead of them lost while they haven't yet? The schedule hasn't been too tough so far on y'all.

Excuse me if I'm a little ornery on this one cause it's a question that Syracuse fans have been defending since the moment we took over the top spot. Yes, the schedule hasn't been full of Top 20 teams but...who's has? And actually, SU's schedule isn't as bad as a lot of folks have been making it out to be (it's No. 1 in the national SOS right now, after all). Not to give Joe Lunardi too much credence, but in his latest bracketology, he has seven teams in the tourney that the Orange have already played, including Florida, Stanford, Virginia Tech and a Fordham team that just beat Harvard. That Seton Hall win looks better every week and Marquette's a solid team. Yes, we haven't played many "true" road games but, again, who has? It's a misnomer that most BCS conference schools have played a large number of true non-con road games. The truth is, Syracuse played one and I'm guessing the average is between 1-2.

Anyway, sorry, I know I'm bring a crybaby Syracuse fans right now. At the end of the day, do I think we can hold our own with Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio State? Absolutely. We won't win every game but we can compete with them. Maybe we're not the sexiest team in the bunch (no superstar, no preseason hype) but this team has earned its spot so far.

The faces on the court are all familiar, but what's the biggest difference this season for 'Cuse? Who has stepped up and helped take this team to the next level?

Defense. Two year ago when SU was a one-seed, they were powered by a suffocating defensive effort led by Wes Johnson, Arinze Onuaku and Andy Rautins. Yes, we always play 2-3 zone but some years we play it better than others and that was one of them. We took a step back defensively last season but this year we're back at that level again. The steals are off the charts thanks to Dion Waiters and it doesn't hurt to have an extremely talented transition offense to couple with that. Plus, Fab Melo (and to a lesser extent, Baye Moussa Keita) has developed into a ferocious shot-blocker who can body-up in the paint. You won't recognize the guy.

Who's the biggest Big East title challenger to Syracuse this year? And now that Georgetown has exceeded expectations, how much angrier are you that you only play them once (you could argue this was Marinatto's biggest fault of 2011, and I wouldn't fight back too much).

It's probably still Louisville if only because we can't seem to figure them out in any form. I don't think we've beaten them on the road since they joined the Big East and it's been a few years since we've beaten them at all. As much as he would strangle you rather than admit it, Pitino kinda owns Boeheim right now. I have a feeling they'll right the ship, just in time for two games against us late in the season.

While we're annoyed by the Georgetown thing, we're also used to it. It's happened a few times now. It's just funny to listen to folks like Marinatto harp on and on about the sanctity of Big East basketball and then do something like schedule SU-Gtown once a season. So, so dumb.

Syracuse's move to the ACC was announced during football season, and it seems like most at 'Cuse were ecstatic. But now it's Big East basketball season. You're going to miss it, aren't you?

Yeah, now that we're in basketball season I'm feeling wistful. I think its easy for us to walk away from Big East football since there aren't many strong rivalries. West Virginia is probably the one team we want to beat the most and they're gone as well anyway.

But with basketball, it's really starting to hit home and it's a bummer. There's something to be said for playing Duke and North Carolina every year but yearly games against Florida State, Clemson and NC State just can't match the history behind playing Villanova, St. John's and Seton Hall. I get why we did it and I stand by the decision...but it will be a bummer for sure.

Any nerves about coming to play Villanova, who in recent years have given you a hard time? And no, I don't think we have a chance in this one. Have you seen us shoot the ball? That zone is going to decimate us.

Any Syracuse fan ALWAYS has nerves about playing any Big East game, let alone a road game in Philly. I don't care what the records say, Syracuse and Villanova will almost always play a good game and I'm willing to bet Nova fans are looking forward to giving us the business.

I expect to win but I won't be shocked if this turns into a classic Big East showdown between the two. Judging by everything else in the conference this season, anything can happen.

Thanks again to Sean, and good luck to the Orange the rest of the way, excluding tonight! Also make sure to head over to TNIAAM and check out the other half of this Q&A where I answer Sean's questions.