first_imgC.J. Fair smiled right before he spoke.Usually around this time of year he fields questions about why Syracuse’s nonconference schedule isn’t tougher.This year, though, the questions were the opposite. He was asked how Syracuse’s difficult nonconference schedule has helped prepare the team for conference play.“We’ve had a tough nonconference schedule,” Fair said, “and usually people criticize us for that.”No. 2 Syracuse (12-0) will face Eastern Michigan (7-4) on Tuesday at 3 p.m. in the Carrier Dome in its final nonconference tune-up before entering Atlantic Coast Conference play for the first time. The Eagles, though less intimidating on paper than some other opponents, are the end of a stretch of formidable non-ACC teams SU has faced.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textSyracuse won the Maui Invitational by beating Minnesota, California and then-No. 18 Baylor, survived St. John’s in Madison Square Garden and surged by then-No. 8 Villanova 78-62 on Saturday – all before conference play.“I think when we get through this nonconference schedule we’ll have been tested,” SU head coach Jim Boeheim said, “probably a bit more than we have been some years.”The Orange’s first test of the year came against an unlikely opponent in St. Francis (N.Y.). SU trailed 50-48 with fewer than three minutes to go, and the once-seemingly impossible loss became a legitimate worry for the Syracuse faithful.But Syracuse closed the game on a 10-0 run as St. Francis crumbled. It was a game that Boeheim insisted SU should have lost, but the Orange escaped.“They should have beat us,” he said of St. Francis. “They were the only team that really should have beat us this year. They had us beat.”In the Maui Invitational, it wasn’t entirely smooth sailing for Syracuse. Minnesota cut its deficit to just two with 2:14 to go before SU pulled away. California was within one point with 11 minutes to go. Baylor lost by just seven.Those three teams currently hold a combined 30-7 record and will likely all be dancing in March.The Orange embarrassed Indiana in a game that was part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, but was anything but a challenge for Syracuse. And St. John’s gave SU a scare in Madison Square Garden before Syracuse won the battle for New York supremacy.The Orange has played strong teams early on in years past. Last year SU faced San Diego State, Arkansas and Temple. This year, though, the string of matchups – and wins – has been even more impressive.“These games,” Boeheim said, “you don’t need to play a hundred of them, but we’ve played enough of these games that are really going to help you.”Saturday’s win over Villanova was SU’s biggest win of the season to date.Even Tyler Ennis, who never got a flavor of Big East basketball, knows the historical significance and the importance of such a marquee matchup early in the year.“It’s a big win,” Ennis said. “It’s a rivalry. They’re a really good team this year, especially being Top 10.”Next up is Eastern Michigan. Syracuse has trounced EMU the last two seasons by identical scores of 84-48. Despite the lopsided history between the two teams, the Eagles are an improved team this year.They trailed Kentucky by just three at the half, hung around with Massachusetts and lost to Purdue by only five.Eagles head coach Rob Murphy, who was an assistant coach for SU, has implemented a zone defense that has held opponents to 37 percent shooting on the season. EMU, meanwhile, is shooting 44 percent.Eagles’ center Da’Shonte Riley spent his freshman season at Syracuse and is also very familiar with Boeheim’s zone.With EMU’s recent success and familiarity with Syracuse, SU guard Trevor Cooney knows his team can’t sleep on the Eagles.“Eastern Michigan’s a really good team,” Cooney said. “We’re not worried about conference play right now. Just worried about them.”Boeheim said Murphy has molded EMU into a difficult team to play against. He expects another tough challenge on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve.Then, for Syracuse, the tough sledding through nonconference play is over. It’s on to the ACC.“It definitely helped a lot,” sophomore Jerami Grant said. “Knowing that we’re going to the ACC there’s going to be a lot of good teams to play against, so it helped us a lot to prepare for what to come.” Comments Facebook Twitter Google+ Published on December 30, 2013 at 1:44 pm Contact Trevor: [email protected] | @TrevorHasslast_img read more