SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- It is his team now.

In years past, the talents of Sherman Douglas, Rony Seikaly, Derrick Coleman and Stevie Thompson have shaped the personality of the Syracuse Orangemen.

They're all gone now, leaving behind a formidable legacy. Syracuse has shared the Big East title three of the last five years.

Perhaps the demands would bury lesser players. But Billy Owens, one of the top college players in the country, isn't particularly concerned with the prestigious stacks of newspaper clippings left behind.

"You can label us all as impact players here, but we all have different games," Owens said. "I really don't let {the comparisons} get to me. I think I've proved myself to the scouts, so I want to concentrate on the Syracuse team."

So far, Owens has kept sharply focused. The Orangemen (12-0 before last night's game against St. John's) are ranked third despite losing 52.1 percent of the scoring and 50.4 percent of the rebounding from a team that won 26 games last season.

Owens, a 6-foot-9, 225-pound forward, is averaging about 20 points and 12 rebounds despite tactics specifically designed to diminish his effectiveness. But there are inherent problems with whatever schemes coaches concoct on the locker-room blackboard.

A small forward has limited options stopping Owens inside. A power forward cannot contend with his quickness and ability to score from the outside.

"Billy is a funny guy," His coach, Jim Boeheim, said. "Everybody looks at him and says he's a two {off guard} or three {small forward}. He's not a two. If you say he's a two, then you're taking away what he does best.

"What he does best is similar to Derrick. He's a great rebounder. And at three, he can do that. He's got great post-up moves, and he's unstoppable inside. If you double-team him, he hits the open man. If you play him at two, a 6-5 guard can't guard him. And in our offense, if you put a 6-8 or 6-9 guy on him, he just brings that guy out and goes by him."

UNLV's Larry Johnson is a more proficient power player and perhaps would be the No. 1 selection if the NBA did its picking today. Owens still merits consideration, even though he is only a junior.

"I feel I may need another year to play, or maybe I just want college life, and I'm not ready for the business yet -- because that's all the NBA is," Owens said. "If I stay, I think we can get a lot of good recruits. I do want to win the big one here before I leave. If there is no way that I can win the big one, I think I'll pack my bags and go."

With any luck, it may happen this season. Despite playing with two freshmen, four sophomores and only one senior -- center LeRon Ellis -- Syracuse appears poised to withstand the demands of playing in the Big East.

Picked behind Pittsburgh and Georgetown in most preseason publications, the Orangemen have jumped from a preseason 13th to third in the national poll, evoking comparisons to the 1986-87 team. The Orangemen, considered to be mediocre that season, came within five seconds of the national title when Keith Smart's jumper nudged Indiana ahead of Syracuse.

This season Boeheim has wisely amended the rules on ball distribution to accommodate Owens, who could become the first player in 14 years to average at least 20 points under Boeheim.

"You can't believe how much he can do," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said while coaching Owens on the U.S. national team last summer. "I knew he was multitalented, but I didn't know he was as good as he showed us in the trials."