EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Their role models are the 1985 Villanova Wildcats and the 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack.
If the Syracuse Orangemen finally are going to shed an onerous label, that's who they have to be, who they want to emulate, the path they need to follow.
It's the path of most resistance.
Syracuse, the school with a long history of underachieving, will attempt to pull off the NCAA tournament's biggest coup in 11 years when it battles 14-point favorite Kentucky in college basketball's national championship game at the Meadowlands tonight.
At least the Orangemen recognize the magnitude of the task confronting them.
"We said when we came to the Final Four, we're here to shock the world," said Syracuse center Otis Hill. "Nobody believes in the Orangemen but the Orangemen."
The last time a double-digit favorite lost in the championship game was 1985, when Villanova needed a perfect game to knock off Georgetown and Patrick Ewing, 66-64.
That was two years after North Carolina State floored Houston, an overwhelming favorite with Akeem Olajuwon, in the 1983 title game, 54-52.
Yesterday, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim called N.C. State's miracle march to the title the "most unbelievable in the history of the tournament" and suggested a perfect game isn't required to prevail tonight.
"Listen to [Utah coach] Rick Majerus, we don't have a chance," Boeheim said. "But coaches shouldn't make predictions. I think nine out of 10 I've made are usually wrong.
"There's nobody in college basketball that's unbeatable. Everybody knows that. And it's as simple as that. It's a one-game deal. It's not the NBA, it's not four out of seven.
"We don't think we have to play a perfect game. We think we should play well, and that's all. That's how we'll go into the game."
While Syracuse (29-8) goes into the game trying to prove the experts wrong, Kentucky (33-2) wants to prove them right -- at least the ones who made the Wildcats preseason picks to win it all.
Having cleared his biggest hurdle of the tournament with an 81-74 win over Massachusetts in Saturday's semifinals, Kentucky coach Rick Pitino did his best to narrow the whopping odds.
"This team [Syracuse] started out as Cinderella," Pitino said, "but they're no longer at that point. With the teams they beat, they're playing some of the best basketball in the country right now."
As is usually the case, the game will be determined by defense.
Can Syracuse cope with Kentucky's enervating press?
Can Syracuse's 2-3 zone defense lure the Wildcats into a game they don't want to play?
Syracuse point guard Lazarus Sims ultimately will provide the answer to the first question, and Kentucky guard Tony Delk most likely the second.
Sims nearly left school last summer after his father died of a heart attack. In his one year as a starter, he already has surpassed what his two predecessors -- Adrian Autrey and Baltimore's Michael Lloyd -- had done.
Sims sat for three years, then got his chance only after Lloyd left school in the wake of an NCAA inquiry into his junior college transcript. Lloyd was the point guard when Syracuse had 33 turnovers in a 77-71 loss at Kentucky last season.
"This is not a knock on the young man, but they had a two guard trying to play one guard in Michael Lloyd," Pitino said of that game. "And [now] they have Lazarus Sims, who sees over pressure very well."
Sims shored up Syracuse's ball-handling and, with 6-8 All-American forward John Wallace, helped revise its chemistry. Both areas featured marked improvement this season.
"Lazarus has been great all year," Wallace said. "He doesn't get enough credit. I can't think of a point guard in the country who's done a better job."
At 6-4, Sims will use his height to see over Kentucky's press, which he will see often tonight.
But he and 6-7 backcourt partner Jason Cipolla are not the quickest afoot, and the Wildcats come after the ball with a roster 10-deep in high school All-Americans.
Their press, Sims acknowledged, can be intimidating.
"It can be if you're not in the right frame of mind," he said. "I see them push it, I see the [opposing] guard get disrupted. It's up to me to get everybody in the right position."
On the subject of perfect games, the Orangemen may have played one when they committed only five turnovers in a 77-69 win over Mississippi State on Saturday.
"If they turn it over five times against us, it will be a nice runner-up trophy we will receive," Pitino said.
The Wildcats, seeking their first national title since 1978, rarely see zone defense in the Southeastern Conference.
But they remember last year's 74-61 loss to North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
"They beat us with a zone last year, and I think losing that game helped us this year," Delk said. "A lot of shots I thought were open [against Carolina] weren't."
Kentucky is talking patience and shot selection against the zone this time around.
"We don't want to play into their hands by taking quick shots," said senior center Walter McCarty.
Pub Date: 4/01/96