There wasn't the slightest hint of overstatement in Dwayne (Pearl) Washington's voice one day recently when he looked around the Syracuse locker room and said: "We've got great forwards who can pass and shoot. We've got the guys who can shoot from the outside, guys who can grind inside, a guy who can block shots and a point guard who can play defense. We've got all the tools."
Syracuse brings all its tools, a 13-0 record and the No. 4 national ranking into Capital Centre tonight at 8 o'clock to play 15th-ranked Georgetown. The largest home crowd of the season will see a Syracuse team that Villanova Coach Rollie Massimino says has "the best personnel in the United States, North Carolina included."
This is a collection of veteran players with so much offensive talent, Coach Jim Boeheim can afford to start a defensive specialist, 6-foot-5 Howard Triche. Sophomore Michael Brown, who started all but one game last year at guard, announced Monday that he will transfer -- in part because he said he could not get enough playing time.
It's hard to imagine the Orangemen will miss Brown that much. Syracuse may have the best starting back court in the league anyway, now that 6-7 Rafael Addison has become Washington's running mate. Forward Wendell Alexis, like Addison, is averaging 17.5 points in Big East play, and according to Boston College Coach Gary Williams, "he's the most underrated player in the league." Put them around vastly improved 6-10 sophomore center Rony Seikaly -- probably the league's best pivot man -- and the Orangemen can go with anybody in the country.
There's no way that opposing defenses can focus on just Addison and Washington without getting burned. "People can't key on me," Addison said. "If they do, other people are gonna hurt them. So I get more one-on-one coverage, less box-and-one and less double-coverage. I love it."
The Orangemen already have proven they can win even if Addison and Washington don't have good games. A case in point was the game against Boston College, when Addison missed 12 of 14 shots and Washington took only six shots, but Alexis hit eight of 16 to lead a 16-point victory. Against Villanova, when Alexis missed eight of 14 shots, Seikaly made 10 of 13 in another blowout.
At Syracuse, offense always has received most of the attention, even back in the mid-1960s, when Boeheim averaged 14 points a game alongside Dave Bing. The Orangemen have won at least 20 games in eight of Boeheim's nine years as coach. But the rap is that they have been a little soft defensively, which always hurts most at tournament time.
Whether the criticism is justified, this Syracuse team has truly embraced the notion of playing sound defense, which is necessary to get through the Big East.
"All the teams who've won the national championships have been great defensively -- the Georgetowns and Villanovas," Washington said. "That's what we've got to do."
The offensive stats are nice, but the fact that Syracuse is holding opponents to 40 percent shooting is more significant. Addison, at 6-7, plays on top of the zone, which surely causes problems for 6-2 guards trying to get off jump shots.
"They've got size and speed, and they're capable of pressing you," Williams said. "But they really pack it in (a 2-3 zone) and dare you to shoot."
The point guard who can play defense to whom Washington referred is none other than The Pearl himself. Washington is averaging an outrageous 3.6 steals per game this season and is commonly seen diving on the floor for loose balls.
In addition, he has cut down his turnovers, is handing out 8.6 assists per game, (with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3-1) and says he wants to make the transition from good to great. His scoring average is down about five points, to just under 11 per game. And his number of flamboyant plays is down, too, which may disappoint fans, but it keeps Boeheim's blood pressure down.
"Even when Dwayne isn't getting the assist, he's getting the ball to the guy who gets the assist," Boeheim said. "With Addison, Alexis and Seikaly, he's not going to score a lot of points. He's a point guard, not a scorer.
"He got 25 points in two games as a freshman in the Big East tournament (two years ago) because he had to. We didn't have enough offense then. But we have enough offense now. That's not his game now, to go in there and score a lot of points. Play good defense, don't turn the ball over."
It doesn't sound as if Boeheim had to do a hard selling job on Washington.
"In order to win a national championship," Washington said, "you've got to have a great center and you've got to have a great point guard. The great point guard will know what's there. You gotta know when you can make the flashy move and when to stay basic. I was pretty successful with being flashy. Now I'm a little more conservative, even though I can get a little flashy, too."
Washington may very well become a great point guard by season's end. Some would say he already is. He's the only starter shooting less than 50 percent, and that's probably because he can't pass the ball to himself. The number of open shots and good inside shots Syracuse gets is sometimes amazing. "Even if we miss a shot, it's a good shot," Boeheim said.
One person Boeheim doesn't expect to miss many is Seikaly, the sophomore from Athens. Not only is he playing with the consummate passer in Washington, but with Alexis and Addison, who are better than average at spotting an open man. "They're getting him the ball in the right spots, and it's like saying, 'Here, Rony, lay it in,' " Boeheim said.
Seikaly is not to be confused with Patrick Ewing, but in a year when there is no dominant center in the nation, let alone the league, he'll do just fine and is capable of dominating stretches of a game. Massimino gave him a near compliment by saying, "He's a dominating type of player, sort of."
Coming into tonight's game, Seikaly has been averaging 11 points and nine rebounds overall, but 16 and 10, respectively, through four Big East games.
"We're looking for him to get the ball down low, turn around and make some shots," Washington said. "Get some rebounds and make the outlet. He's been doing that pretty well."
Seikaly, Boeheim says, just walked into the gym last year, said he had seen Syracuse play once or twice (from the top row in the 32,000-seat Carrier Dome) and wanted to play.
"I really didn't know his father was from Syracuse or that his brother owned a condominium in Syracuse," Boeheim said. "He said, 'I think I'll come to Syracuse.' And I said, 'Yeah, I think that's a good idea.' "
Last year, as Boston College's Williams put it, "Seikaly would play well for a minute, then you wouldn't see him for a while. . . . But his confidence and concentration this year (along with about 20 more pounds) have changed his game completely. He's really added something to that team."
Boeheim already is being asked if this Syracuse team reminds him of the one in 1976 that reached the Final Four, and he cautiously says it's too early to get that excited.
"We haven't been on the road much (only twice this season), and we haven't played the top teams yet," Boeheim said. "We'll know more about this team when we play on the road. We've still got to go through some tough times. Our bench is not comfortable yet. Georgetown will be a real hard, hard place to play. So will Louisville (on Saturday). We'll see, once we get by that."