first_imgPITTSBURGH – Dion Waiters’ celebration was, in a way, perfect. The straight face, the flex of the muscles, the stare. It all made sense.He had just sliced through the Kansas State defense from the top of the key, hugging the basketball with both arms like he was a running back protecting a football.He had just absorbed contact from not one but two Wildcat defenders, tossing up a circus left-handed layup in the process that somehow found its way through the basket.And he had just landed, perfectly enough, with his body facing the two rows of media covering Syracuse’s 16-point triumph over Kansas State. It allowed him to stare some of SU’s doubters right in the face.‘I think today we made a statement in that we are a No. 1 seed for a reason,’ Waiters said.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textHe’s absolutely right. Saturday’s 75-59 win over eighth-seeded Kansas State went beyond the formal punching of SU’s ticket to the Sweet 16. Rather, it was a rejuvenation of a team many thought to be teetering on the edge of elimination from a tournament it expected to have a chance at winning.Thursday’s narrow victory over No. 16 UNC Asheville cast doubt on this team’s ability to play without Big East Defensive Player of the Year Fab Melo. Head coach Jim Boeheim and his players already faced question after question regarding the repercussions of Melo’s absence Wednesday. And after the slim seven-point victory against the Bulldogs, the doubters only grew louder.But in running away from Kansas State on Saturday – holding the Wildcats to 31.3 percent shooting, battling back from a huge first-half rebounding hole and reaching the 75-point plateau for the first time since Feb. 11 – the Orange quieted the majority of those doubters.‘They doubted us,’ point guard Scoop Jardine said. ‘Nobody thought we were going to get this far, especially losing Fab. It doesn’t matter. Our identity is us, what we believe in and what we can do.’I am included in the ‘they’ Jardine alluded to. I, like many, didn’t think Syracuse had the resolve or the interior toughness to overcome the loss of Melo.Saturday’s game proved I was wrong.Despite being slaughtered on the boards in the first half by Kansas State and performing poorly offensively, Syracuse battled back.Freshman Rakeem Christmas, the same player who was figuratively punched in the mouth by Notre Dame’s Jack Cooley in January, transformed into a totally different player.After Kansas State forward Jordan Henriquez grabbed 11 rebounds in the first half, Christmas responded with eight points and seven rebounds of his own in the second half. It was a ‘take that’ type of statement.He chipped in offensively by finishing feeds at the rim with dunks. He also blocked a pair of shots in the second half, including one he sent flying into the Kansas State bench.Is he Fab Melo? No. Is he getting there? You bet.‘Rakeem was tremendous,’ SU head coach Jim Boeheim said. ‘He really was. He was tremendous. He’s just kind of figuring it out.’His teammate, Jardine, figured it out as well on Saturday in time to save the game for the Orange. He overcame a two-point, four-turnover disastrous opening 20 minutes to pour in 14 points and six assists in the second half and lead his team to a win.The head-scratching turnovers of the first half were replaced with solid veteran leadership and a will to win.That trickled down to his fellow Philadelphian Dion Waiters. The shots he forced against UNC Asheville were nowhere to be found Saturday. In their place was an efficient 5-of-9 performance, plus seven perfect free throws to lead Syracuse in scoring with 18 points.Everything the Orange was on Thursday, it wasn’t on Saturday. The players seemed to be back in midseason form.‘I’m excited, the way we came out and played,’ Waiters said. ‘I can’t ask for nothing else.’With the win over KSU, Syracuse can put a half-disastrous, half-brilliant weekend behind it. The road to Boston wasn’t pretty, but the Orange seems to be leaving Pittsburgh on the heels of a game that inspired a world of confidence.SU is still a long way from New Orleans, which remains the ultimate goal. And I’m not ready to anoint this team as Final Four caliber yet.But Saturday was certainly a start.Said C.J. Fair: ‘This was definitely what we needed.’Michael Cohen is a staff writer for The Daily Orange, where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13. Published on March 17, 2012 at 12:00 pm Contact Michael: [email protected] | @Michael_Cohen13 Commentscenter_img Facebook Twitter Google+last_img