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RAUTINS SHOOTS DOWN DOUBTERS

TIMES SPORTSWRITER
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Jim Boeheim could have said, "I told you so."


Boeheim could gloat that he was right when he recruited Andy Rautins out of nearby Jamesville-DeWitt High School five years ago with visions of him becoming a top-notch player for the Syracuse Orange. Or that Rautins would develop into one of the Big East Conference's most versatile players with a chance of making it to the pros after his SU career was over.


Boeheim was one of the few major college coaches to even give Rautins a look, although he was an all-state performer at J-D and one of the rising stars in Central New York scholastic circles.


In fact, most people figured Boeheim recruited Rautins only out of courtesy to his father, former SU star Leo Rautins, who is on the Orange All-Century team and was one of Boeheim's top players in his early years on the Orange sidelines.


"I can tell you Jim always thought Andy was a better player than he was given credit for," said Boeheim's long-time assistant, Bernie Fine. "He saw a lot of his father in Andy, the ability to play the entire court and do lots of different things."


Rautins has certainly justified Boeheim's faith in him as he finishes off a stellar career this season. Not only has the 6-foot-5 guard exceeded expectations, he has become arguably the most important cog in a team that has all the makings of a Final Four squad.


Rautins has become the glue that holds the Orange together. He's made big shot after big shot, has become an exceptional passer, a terrific defender and rebounder, and simply one of the best all-around players in the Big East, if not the country.


His numbers don't wow you. He's averaging only 10.9 points per game, just a bit better than last season. But ask his teammates or those forced to defend him, and they will tell you the intangible things he brings to the Orange are what make Rautins special.


"Wes Johnson is their best player, no doubt," said South Florida coach Stan Heath after SU's recent win over the Bulls. "But if I was starting a team, I'd want a player like Rautins. He's so smart, so poised. Nothing seems to bother him. I've seen him grow from a role player to a star."


After Rautins torched Notre Dame for 21 points, including 5 of 9 from 3-point range, in Monday night's SU win, Irish coach Mike Brey said, "Rautins is simply a winner. Every coach in America would die for a kid that has been through so much and has developed so much in his career."


SU senior center Arinze Onuaku, who also is a fifth-year player and serves as co-captain this year, said, "Andy is what college basketball is all about. Here's a kid that has had to work for everything he's got. People don't realize what kind of effort it takes to succeed at this level when you aren't the most talented player. Andy's work ethic is second to none, he plays harder than anybody, and he makes us a great team."


Boeheim won't specifically get into why he thought Rautins would succeed. "But when you watch a kid in high school you kind of get a sense of what he is and could become," he said. "To Andy's credit, he's willed himself into becoming a terrific player. You can't coach that."


How important has Rautins been in SU's top five ranking, an 18-1 start and the recognition as a legitimate national contender?


He ranks second in the Big East in assists at 5.3 per game. That's almost unheard of for an off-guard. And it's one of the reasons SU has been so unselfish on offense and ranks among the nation's leaders in assists per game.


Rautins is shooting .406 from 3-point range, which ranks fourth in the conference, and he is also averaging nearly four rebounds.


Defensively, his presence at the front of the Orange 2-3 zone has been a exceptional. His length and agility help him cover lots of ground. He is averaging 2.3 steals per contest, which ranks No. 1 in the Big East.


"The most amazing thing about Andy is how much he's improved on defense," said SU assistant coach Mike Hopkins, who mentors the SU guards. "In high school, he was a liability on defense. But his mind-set since he's come here is that defense generates offense, and he's now become one of the top defenders in our league."


It wasn't like Rautins made an immediate impact. He came off the bench his first two seasons as a role player, contributing mainly with his ability to hit the perimeter shot.


After injuring his knee in the summer of 2007 while playing for his father on the Canadian National team, and being forced to miss the entire 2007-2008 campaign, Rautins came back strong last year to play a major role in SU advancing to the NCAA Sweet 16.


Rautins said his goal this season was "to improve in every facet of the game and to become a team leader." He has been a rousing success in both areas.


"Andy's the one that gets us together when things aren't going well," said Johnson, a first-year player who transferred from Iowa State. "I've only been here for awhile, but he definitely is the one who makes things happen for us."


ESPN analyst Jay Bilas loves the way Rautins plays, as if every game is his last. "He's become one of my favorite players because of how hard he plays," Bilas said. "In my mind, he's one of the top playmakers in the country. He can beat you in so many ways."


And he's been hot of late. Rautins scored a career-best 23 points in the one-point West Virginia win last Saturday, then contributed 21 big points in SU's win at Notre Dame on Monday.


He's also recorded five or more assists in 11 different games, and has six games of five rebounds or more.


To Boeheim, Rautins is most definitely worthy of postseason recognition. "He's having as good a season as anybody," the veteran coach said.


Rautins said he's just happy the Orange are winning and that's he's contributing to their success. "Any individual honors are nice, but that's not what's important."


Pro scouts have also taken notice of Rautins's emergence as an elite player. "I think if he got into the right system he definitely could make it in the NBA," Bilas said.


Boeheim agrees. "He's the perfect two guard for pro ball — long, agile, a great shooter, a good enough ball handler and he can defend the bigger guards. All he needs is a chance."


Which is exactly what Boeheim gave Rautins five years ago.


SU TOPS IN RPI


The Orange may not be ranked No. 1 in the country in the polls — they are actually fifth in both the Associated Press and ESPN Coaches poll — but they are tops in a couple of important rankings that judge the top teams.


For the first time ever, SU is numero uno in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), which takes into account record, strength of schedule and conference strength.


At 18-1, SU has a RPI of .6795 and a strength of schedule of 7.


Duke, Kansas State, Kansas and Villanova round out the top five. Georgetown (7), Pittsburgh (8), West Virginia (12) and Connecticut (23) are also in the top 25.


And in ESPN's latest Bracketology, which predicts the NCAA Tournament field, the Orange are one of the four top seeds. Analyst Joe Lunardi has SU as the top seed in the West Region, playing the first and second rounds in nearby Buffalo on March 19 and 21. The West Region semifinals and finals are in Salt Lake City on March 25 and 27.


SU cannot be placed in the East Region because the Carrier Dome is the host for the East Regional on March 25-27.


The other top four seeds right now are Texas (South), Kentucky (Midwest) and Kansas (East).


Besides SU, other Big East teams projected into the field are Connecticut (West), Louisville and Pittsburgh (South), West Virginia and Cincinnati (Midwest) and Villanova and Georgetown (East).

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