JIM O’CONNELL,AP Basketball Writer
Jim Boeheim has been coaching for 35 years and one thing he has learned is that players are able to focus on basketball even when there is a whirlwind around them.
The Syracuse program has been in the headlines since former assistant coach Bernie Fine was alleged to have molested two former ball boys. Quietly, the Orange have found a way to the top of The Associated Press’ Top 25.
“Young kids constantly have different things going in their lives, school, relationships, how they are playing, a million things go through their minds,” Boeheim said Monday. “They have the ability to focus on things they have to do and they get it done. It’s a great thing about kids, that older people tend to get caught up or get unfocused, get caught up more in outside influences and can’t separate them. Kids aren’t like that. They focus on what they control and go forward. It’s a good thing about being young.”
The Orange (10-0) jumped from third to No. 1 following losses this weekend by Kentucky and Ohio State. They received 51 first-place votes from the 65-member national media panel.
Syracuse was No. 1 in the 1987-88 preseason poll and for six weeks in 1989-90.
It’s something that means a lot to a program.
“We’re proud to be No. 1 in the country,” Boeheim said. “It’s an honor but obviously in today’s world you could only be there until your next game if you’re not careful. There’s so much balance out there. I think it’s still a big honor for our players to get to that spot and we have played well. We have to play better but that’s OK because it’s a great challenge and we’re looking forward it.”
The Orange’s big win this season was over then-No. 10 Florida, but they have been impressive in the others, especially on the defensive end behind Boeheim’s famous 2-3 zone.
“I think one thing is we have balance offensively and defensively,” Boeheim said. “We have really good balance. I think that’s important to have a great team. We have the balance individually and as a team and that’s what’s really good about this team and hopefully we’ll get better but I’m sure all coaches think that right now.”
Ohio State (8-1), which didn’t have star center Jared Sullinger in the loss to Kansas, stayed second, while Kentucky (8-1) dropped from first to third following the buzzer-beating loss to Indiana.
The Hoosiers, one of four newcomers this week, moved in at 18th, their first appearance since 2007-08.
Ohio State, which hasn’t had Sullinger for two games because of back spasms, received seven first-place votes, three more than Kentucky.
Louisville, which had two No. 1 votes, and North Carolina, which had one, switched places from last week at fourth and fifth.
Baylor, Duke, Xavier, Connecticut and Missouri rounded out the top 10.
Marquette was 11th followed by Kansas, Florida, Wisconsin, Pittsburgh, Georgetown, Mississippi State, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.
The last of the ranked teams were Michigan State, Texas A&M, Alabama, Murray State and Creighton and Vanderbilt, who were tied for 25th.
Christian Watford’s 3 at the buzzer moved Indiana (9-0) into the poll for the first time since Tom Crean took over as coach following Kelvin Sampson’s dismissal after the 2007-08 season.
The other newcomers this week were No. 21 Michigan State (8-2), No. 24 Murray State (10-0) and No. 25 Vanderbilt.
Michigan State is in for the first time this season. The Spartans have won eight straight — including a win over Gonzaga last week — since opening the season with losses to North Carolina and Duke.
Murray State joined the rankings for the first time since the final poll of 1997-98. The Racers beat Memphis on the road last week.
Vanderbilt is back in the rankings after one week out. The Commodores, who were No. 7 in the preseason poll, welcomed back center Festus Ezeli, who missed the first six games of the season after being suspended by the university for accepting meals and a hotel room from a booster and two more because of a right knee injury, in a win over Davidson last week.
Memphis (5-3) was 11th in the preseason poll and reached as high as eighth. But the Tigers, who lost to Michigan and Georgetown in the EA Sports Maui Invitational, dropped out from 21st following the home loss to Murray State.
Gonzaga (5-2) lost to Michigan State this week and fell out from 23rd.
Harvard (9-1) moved into the rankings for the first time in school history last week but the Crimson dropped out after a 67-53 loss at Connecticut.
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