Owens hopes to lead Syracuse to NCAA crown, but NBA beckons


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 basketball championship three of the past 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 that [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 (7-0) are ranked third in the country by The Associated Press 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 19.9 points and 11.8 rebounds despite myriad defenses 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," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "Everybody looks at him and says he's a two [shooting 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.

"He's just a very versatile player. I don't even get into his position. There can't possibly be a college player who does as many things."

UNLV's Larry Johnson is a more proficient power player and perhaps would be the No. 1 selection if the National Basketball Association did its picking today. Owens still merits consideration, even though he is only a junior and remains uncommitted regarding his plans for next season.

Owens saw Coleman stick around for a senior season and parlay that investment into a $15 million contract with the New Jersey Nets -- more than double what Coleman would have made had he come out after his junior season.

"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 -- 6-foot-10 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 simply mediocre that season, came within five seconds of the national championship when Keith Smart's dramatic 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.

"In basketball you can juggle two or three guys, but you can't go beyond that because there aren't enough possessions in college, especially against teams that hold the ball," Boeheim said. "You're going to get 50-60 shots. So if you have three guys taking 15, that's 45 right there.

"Billy wasn't the focal point last season. Now he is the focal point, and he doesn't take a lot of shots. I leave him in the game because he helps other guys get better and stabilizes things. He's unselfish. He scores when we need him to score."

Although a cynic may assume that Boeheim's perspective is biased, objective observers echo those sentiments.

"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."

Pat Williams, general manager of the Orlando Magic: "If he came out he would be a very high pick. He would be a big-time pro. . . . He is very versatile. His only weakness is that he isn't a pure shooter."

Given this gushing atmosphere and financial considerations, it is expected that the lure of the NBA will be too much to pass up in a few months. Owens' father, a high school football coach, is pushing for Owens to complete his education. His mother wants new house. Owens simply wants new clothes off the rack of one of the finest stores within shopping distance.

There are frequent conversations with Coleman, who is giving him a glimpse of the NBA. The lure is enticing.

"Derrick says he hates losing," Owens said. "The biggest thing is getting used to that. As a high pick, you always go to a team that's not very good. . . ."

Owens paused, then smiled.

"But the money's good."

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