No. 2 Syracuse rolling with UNC up next
Syracuse's Tyler Ennis (11) goes up for a basket against Virginia Tech's C.J. Barksdale (42) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, in Blacksburg, Va. (AP Photo/Don Petersen)
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim gestures to the referees during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game between Syracuse and Virginia Tech on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, in Blacksburg, Va. Syracuse won 72-52. (AP Photo/Don Petersen)
Syracuse's C.J. Fair (5) goes up for a dunk against Virginia Tech's Joey van Zegeren (2) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, in Blacksburg, Va. (AP Photo/Don Petersen)
Syracuse's Tyler Ennis (11) goes for a steal against Virginia Tech's Devin Wilson during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, in Blacksburg, Va. Syracuse won 72-52. (AP Photo/Don Petersen)
Syracuse's Baye Moussa Keita grabs a rebound against Virginia Tech's Trevor Thompson, left, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, in Blacksburg, Va. (AP Photo/Don Petersen)
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — After Syracuse lost to Michigan in the Final Four last spring, Jim Boeheim was asked if he planned to return for the Orange’s first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Boeheim was dumbfounded.
“The only reason that I would not coach next year is because I didn’t feel I could do a good job or wanted to do it, and I have no feeling at all now that that will be the case,” he said after his first loss in four national semifinal appearances. “You know, I like where we are.”
What’s not to like?
Syracuse is ranked No. 2 and is 15-0 for the third time in four years.
“My sophomore year we went undefeated for a while,” senior C.J. Fair said of 2011-12, when the Orange started 20-0 and were ranked No. 1 for 11 straight weeks. “This year, we got off to a good start, played some quality teams. I think we’re well-respected.”
Most assuredly, the Orange, with a new backcourt in freshman point guard Tyler Ennis and shooting guard Trevor Cooney, have surprised their wily Hall of Fame coach. Despite a difficult nonconference schedule that included wins over Baylor, Minnesota, California, Indiana and former Big East rivals St. John’s and Villanova, the Orange are one of only five remaining undefeated teams in Division I.
“These guys have played well,” Boeheim said. “They’ve done everything we could possibly have asked. They’ve played some really good teams and played some really good basketball.”
Boeheim is 69 and has spent nearly four decades on the bench.
“If we had won the championship last year, it could have been a consideration for him,” Fair said. “You never know where his mind is at as far as retiring. If we win a national championship, it wouldn’t be a bad thing.”
Syracuse has won its first two games in the ACC, squeaking past Miami 49-44 at home and easily handling Virginia Tech on the road. The Orange will be looking to make it three in a row Saturday when they host erratic North Carolina (10-4, 0-2), which this week dropped out of the Top 25 for the second time this season.
The Tar Heels were 12th in the preseason poll and have beaten highly ranked Michigan State, Kentucky and Louisville but lost to five unranked opponents. They dropped out of the rankings in the fourth regular-season voting following losses to Belmont and UAB, returned after a one-week absence with a win over then-No. 1 Michigan State, then dropped out from No. 19 after opening ACC play with a loss at Wake Forest.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams isn’t sure what to expect.
“I think they definitely did (get up) for those three teams,” Williams said Friday at practice. “If that same kind of attitude is going to show up tomorrow, I’ll be very, very pleased. We have to be completely fired-up, completely enthused, completely motivated tomorrow, or else we have no chance. I would think they’d better be enthused.”
Center Joel James returned to the North Carolina lineup Wednesday night against Miami after having missed four straight games and most of a loss to Texas on Dec. 18 with a right-knee injury. The 6-foot-10 sophomore had four points and five rebounds against the Hurricanes but was ejected early in the second half for a flagrant-2 foul and UNC lost 63-57.
North Carolina shot just 31 percent (20 for 65) and finished with a season-low scoring output against Miami’s zone defense. Not a good omen coming into the Carrier Dome to face Boeheim’s signature 2-3 zone.
“They just extend it even more, so instead of shooting from your 3-point line, you’re shooting from the NBA 3-point line, and then you’re shooting from somebody else’s 3-point line,” Williams said.
Syracuse ranks fifth in turnover margin (6.4), ninth in steals per game (9.7) and 13th in scoring defense (59.8 ppg.). In its 72-52 win over Virginia Tech on Tuesday night, the Hokies got a firsthand taste of Boeheim’s defense. They entered the game leading the ACC in 3-point field goal percentage (42.5 percent) but shot 29.2 percent.
“It’s tough to match their length and athleticism,” Virginia Tech coach James Johnson said. “I thought they did a much better job than we did on getting out on the shooters. We left the high post open a lot and made our big guys try and make plays. They got out on our shooters, leaving the high post open and we really weren’t able to make those plays.”
More than 31,000 fans are expected for the game, which would make it the largest crowd of the season — until Duke visits in three weeks.
Fair expects an atmosphere similar to a Georgetown game.
“They (UNC) have struggled at times, so hopefully we’ll have some success,” Fair said.
AP Sports Writers Hank Kurz in Virginia and Aaron Beard and Joedy McCreary in North Carolina contributed to this report.