ALBANY, N. Y. - Jim Boeheim injected the needle ever so delicately, but the point was hard to miss.
Just as Carmelo Anthony finished addressing a question about his recent tendency to disappear in the first half, the Syracuse coach looked over at his 18-year-old freshman yesterday and asked plaintively, "You're due for a good first half, aren't you?"
Anthony grinned and shook his head to laughter.
If the Orangemen are going to make their first trip to the NCAA's Final Four since 1996, they likely will need a complete-game performance from their precocious star. The Baltimore native hasn't had one yet in three tournament games, although he has made big plays in each of them.
He'll try again this afternoon against No. 1-seeded Oklahoma in the East Regional championship game at Pepsi Arena. At stake is a trip to New Orleans for next Saturday's national semifinals.
Anthony, who played scholastically at Towson Catholic and Oak Hill (Va.) Academy, is averaging 22 points and 9.8 rebounds a game for the third-seeded Orangemen (27-5). He was the national freshman of the year and, if he chooses to leave, he will be a high lottery pick in the NBA draft this summer.
Should Boeheim win his first national championship this year, Anthony will supply the impetus. But even phenoms stumble once in a while in the epic that is the NCAA tournament.
In the opening round, Anthony rebounded from a terrible first half against Manhattan to score 17 points. In a come-from-behind win over Oklahoma State, he was held without a field goal in the first half, but finished with 13 points.
Then, on Friday night in the Sweet 16, he went scoreless through the first 20 minutes against Auburn, only to pour in 18 second-half points to inspire a 79-78 victory.
His teammates have learned not to doubt their leader.
"Everyone gets frustrated when they struggle like that," Syracuse guard Gerry McNamara said. "It's just a matter of time before he breaks out.
"The thing with Carmelo is, you don't have to say anything. He's so hard on himself that you don't have to approach him."
At 6 feet 8, Anthony has the skills to shoot threes from the arc or go inside and pound the glass. But he can make a contribution, Boeheim said, even when he's not scoring at a prolific pace.
"Some of it is patience and getting a better-quality shot," the coach said. "The second half [against Auburn] he got on the offensive boards, which is something he does probably better than any small forward I've ever seen.
"I think sometimes in the first half of games, he relies a little too much on his jumper. But he can be very valuable to us if he rebounds and draws people to him and gets other people open shots.
"That's something he's done all year. I think when he's not playing well, he does what all the great players do. They just take it to another level and do something else to find a way to score and help his team."
That's a characteristic that Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson appreciates. Although Sampson is renowned for teaching defense, he admits defending Anthony poses an extreme challenge.
"We don't match up with him, but then I don't know who does," Sampson said. "He's the LeBron James of college basketball, and maybe a better player. People don't realize what a great player he is. He plays when he has to play, and that's a sign of a great player."
The Sooners (27-6) shut down Butler's three-point shooters in the region semifinal. They may attempt to guard Anthony with either 6-5 Ebi Ere or 6-4 De'Angelo Alexander, giving away height in either case. Or they could go for size and send 6-8 Kevin Bookout or 6-10 Jabahri Brown after him.
Anthony didn't sound overly concerned either way.
"If they put a smaller guy on me, I'll take him inside," he said. "If they most likely put a big man on me, I know I can take him on the dribble."
No. 1 Okla. (27-6) vs. No. 3 Syracuse (27-5)
Site: Pepsi Arena, Albany, N. Y.
Time: 2:40 p.m.
Coaches: Kelvin Sampson is 214-80 in nine seasons at Oklahoma and 390-228 in 20 seasons overall. Jim Boeheim is 650-226 in 27 seasons at Syracuse.
Oklahoma's lineup: G Hollis Price (18.3 ppg, .447 3-FG), G Quannas White (8.8 ppg, 4.2 apg), G De'Angelo Alexander (6.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg), F Kevin Bookout (9.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg), F Johnnie Gilbert (3.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg).
Syracuse's lineup: G Gerry McNamara (13.2 ppg, 4.6 apg), G Kueth Duany (11.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg), F Carmelo Anthony (22.0 ppg, 9.8 rpg), F Hakim Warrick (15.0 ppg, 8.7 rpg), C Craig Forth (3.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg).
Bench strength: Senior G Ebi Ere is playing with a broken bone in his left, non-shooting wrist and has a slight sprain in his right, but that didn't prevent him from scoring 25 points for Oklahoma in the semifinal. Jabahri Brown is a force on the boards and can find an open man inside with his passing, but is prone to foul. Billy Edelin and Josh Pace are capable of giving Syracuse a big offensive push. Jeremy McNeil is a shot-blocker who can redirect the flow inside.
Key matchup: Like every team that plays Syracuse, the Sooners don't have any obvious solutions to the 6-8 Anthony. It's a bad matchup for them, too. They likely will have to defend him with two undersized swingmen, 6-4 De'Angelo Alexander or the 6-5 Ere. Or they may resort to their own, 2-3 zone.
What Oklahoma needs to do to win: Choke off Syracuse's perimeter game, much as the Sooners did against Butler, and find a way to keep Anthony from gashing them inside. The Sooners need to pass well, stay away from turnovers and hit their outside shots to beat the 2-3 Syracuse zone.
What Syracuse needs to do to win: Maintain its composure against Oklahoma's senior backcourt and get a more even game from Anthony, who was scoreless in the first half Friday night. Hitting their outside shots against a good perimeter defense will be key for the Orangemen, too.
Bottom line: Albany represents home-court advantage, no matter what Boeheim says. But Oklahoma is seasoned at playing in hostile arenas. Price and White both say it will come down to which team wants it more, and Oklahoma's seniors likely have the edge there.