When the college basketball season began, nobody thought much about the Syracuse Orange.
Having lost three of the starters who helped them reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament last year, they had not a single top-50 recruit among their top seven players. Nobody was sure how they would mesh, and they weren't even ranked in the AP Top 25 poll.
Now, everybody's taking notice.
In one of the most unexpected developments in recent years, the Orange have blossomed into one of the most dangerous teams in the country -- the top seed in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament and a six-point favorite to beat Butler in the Sweet 16 at EnergySolutions Arena on Thursday night.
Many analysts are even starting to think coach Jim Boeheim's guys could emerge with the national championship.
"Syracuse certainly looks capable," columnist Stewart Mandel wrote for Sports Illustrated .
Yes, it does.
The 30-4 Orange have impressed with dominating victories over Vermont and Gonzaga in their first two tournament games, mitigating their quarterfinal ouster from the Big East Conference tournament. Boeheim has said they're playing as well as they have all season -- and that's saying something, considering the Orange had won 24 of their first 25 games and later ascended to No. 1 in the AP poll before losing to Louisville in the regular-season finale and then Georgetown in the Big East tournament.
"It's exciting," former Syracuse star Derrick Coleman told the Syracuse Post-Standard at the time. "It's not only exciting for the current players, but it's exciting for all the guys who played there in the past and the university community and the whole city of Syracuse. When you're the No. 1 team in the country, everybody knows who you are."
Coleman should know.
The former NBA star played for the Orange the last time they were ranked No. 1 in the regular season, back in 1989-90. That also was the last time a team had gone from unranked in the preseason to No. 1. Kansas did it that year, and it has happened only six times in the history of the AP poll.
The Orange have done it with the help of junior Wes Johnson, a smiling and smooth 6-foot-7 forward who persuaded Boeheim to accept him as a transfer and then led the team in scoring and rebounding while winning Big East Conference player of the year honors.
Johnson's size and length also have helped the Orange improve their trademark zone defense from a year ago, which Boeheim said is the biggest reason they're better than last year's Sweet 16 team that lost -- among others -- Jonny Flynn, the sixth pick in the NBA Draft last spring.
"I don't think that our confidence ever wavered on this team," senior guard Andy Rautins said. "We knew we had a ton of talent. But our work ethic was there, too. When you put all those things together, I think it was a successful team. Last year we may have had a few more individuals. This year's team is exactly that -- it's a team."
The Orange have seven players who average at least 20 minutes per game, lead the nation by shooting 51.7 percent, and enjoy the kind of solid all-around play from Rautins that wins games. Their only real concern is injured center Arinze Onuaku, a 6-9 senior who has missed the two tournament games with a quadriceps injury suffered in the loss to Georgetown.
It's uncertain whether Onuaku will play against Butler.
But Syracuse has looked surprisingly good without its man in the middle.
It predictably handled No. 16 seed Vermont 79-56, then unexpectedly annihilated No. 9 seed Gonzaga 87-65 behind a dozen three-pointers and nearly 55 percent shooting. Johnson had 31 points and 14 rebounds in that game, after which Gonzaga coach Mark Few said that nobody will beat the Orange if they keep shooting the way they did against his Bulldogs.
Which is music to the ears of the guys in Orange to whom nobody paid much attention just a few months ago.
"We try to play with a chip on our shoulder whenever we go out there," sophomore guard Scoop Jardine said. "It was a team that was doubted in the beginning of the year. ... Coming into the tournament, we had lost two games straight. People kind of turned their heads. Then we lost Arinze Onuaku. We knew it was a good team all year and we could stick together and just play basketball."
Opening rounds at Buffalo, N.Y.
March 19 vs. Vermont -- W, 79-56
What happened » The Orange score 20 of the first 22 points and use a balanced attack to avenge a first-round loss to the Catamounts five years ago.
Leading scorer » Wes Johnson, 18
March 21 vs. Gonzaga -- W, 87-65
What happened » Wes Johnson erupts for 31 points and the Orange bury a dozen three-pointers while shooting 55 percent to overwhelm the Bulldogs.
Leading scorer » Wes Johnson, 31
Some tickets originally held in reserve for the participating schools have now been released for sale to the public. Only all-session tickets (which include both of Thursday's regional semifinal games, as well Saturday's regional final) are available, at a cost of $171. Tickets can be purchased online at smithstix.com or by calling 1-800-888-8499. Tickets can be picked up at the will-call area of EnergySolutions Arena.
The four West Regional semifinalists will practice today at EnergySolutions Arena. Practices are free and open to the public.
Butler » Noon
Xavier » 1 p.m.
Syracuse » 2:10 p.m.
Kansas State » 3:10 p.m.
> Visitsltrib.com/sports for stories about each team following their news conferences today.
» No. 5 Butler vs. No. 1 Syracuse, 5:07 p.m.
» No. 6 Xavier vs. No. 2 Kansas State, 7:37 p.m.