Sizing up the three teams ahead of Syracuse

Duke and SU will play the most anticipated game of the season for Orange fans

Eight games into the season, the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team is currently ranked fourth in both polls, and has once again shown that it has what it takes to be No. 1. The only question that remains is, who needs to be crushed beneath our custom Nikes to get there?

3. Michigan Wolverines

There was a lot of talk at the end of last season of star point guard Trey Burke going pro, and whether the Wolverines would be able to handle Darius Morris following the money in 2011. Fortunately for them, Burke decided to return and lead a core that boasts some impressive lineage: Tim Hardaway Jr., son of former NBA All-Star and Run-TMC member Tim Hardaway, Glenn Robinson III, son former Wooden Award winner and No. 1 draft pick Glenn Robinson, and Nik Stauskus, son of Ruta and Paul Stauskus, who are by all accounts wonderful people.

Duke is currently ranked No. 2

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The four players have shared the scoring burden under coach John Beilein, who mysteriously forgot to leave for a different job this summer, with Burke running the show to the tune of 7.1 assists per game, and Stauskus shooting a white-hot 61 percent from 3. A 13-point home victory over mutual foe Arkansas gives you a pretty good idea of how close the ‘Cuse is to knocking them off this list. Their true road wins include Bradley and no one else.

2. Duke Blue Devils

In anticipation of our move to the ACC next year, it’s probably a good idea for Orange fans to start in with the Duke-hating this season. The Blue Devils are following their recent formula to a T this season: a few highly-touted guards and one or two giant stiffs who are surprisingly effective despite moving like crudely-constructed marionettes.

Master of puppets Mason Plumlee is the star on this team, averaging a double-double through Duke’s much-lauded difficult early schedule. While Seth Curry has shown considerable improvement over last year, this is largely due to the emergence of freshman point guard Quinn Cook, whose solid game-management has allowed Curry to move to the more-comfortable shooting guard slot.

Neutral site wins over an overwhelmed Kentucky squad and Louisville minus Gorgui Dieng, as well as a home win over Ohio State, have earned Duke some much-deserved praise. The conference season may prove to be a challenge for a team so shallow that coach Mike Krzyzewski wishes he didn’t always have to use five players.

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1. Indiana Hoosiers

The Hoosiers have managed to hold on to a 2-1 advantage in first-place AP votes despite Duke’s strong schedule and coach Tom Crean’s middle school haircut. While the Blue Devils have the better resume, I’ve had the chance to watch both teams play, and this is the team that I would be most nervous about the Orange playing.

I don’t feel confident that Cody Zeller will win the Wooden award this year, even though he’s the early favorite, largely because he’s been so boring to watch. But, man, he does everything that kills the zone. He’s a big guy with a good mid-range touch, he moves well and most importantly he’s an incredibly skilled passer out of the high post.

His supporting cast is full of knockdown shooters, led by Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford. Like the Orange, they like to get out and run, and they play very strong defense. The Big 10 is full of contenders this year, so an undefeated Hoosiers season is unlikely, which means another year of Bobby Knight drinking champagne with Mercury Morris.

While there are a number of strong teams in college basketball this year, the truth is that the Orange are in the midst of a wide-open race to the top.

Time to finish off the cupcakes and bring on the Big East one more time.

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