Syracuse opened its game against Cincinnati just as woefully as it did against Notre Dame on Saturday night.
Against Notre Dame, the Orange (21-1, 8-1 Big East) never led and couldn’t find the basket with a map in its lone loss of the season. Cincinnati (15-6, 5-2) smelled blood in the water and ran out to a 15-6 lead on the heels of a 4-of-5 three-point-shooting performance.
At this pivotal point, Syracuse got back to what it does best, playing defense and running off of transition. Syracuse scratched back to take the lead, 28-25, at the half, but let it slip again to open the second half.
In a hard-fought battle, Syracuse showed why it is an elite team and ended up winning the game, 60-53.
The margin could have been greater, but the score is not the story. Syracuse and Coach Jim Boeheim gave us a glimpse of what the Orange looks like when it is backed up against the wall.
The Notre Dame game was a game of firsts. It was the first game without Fab Melo. It was the first game the entire team would go cold. It was the first time Syracuse would lose this season.
Now that we saw how Syracuse looked when it was falling apart, we had the opportunity to see how the coaching staff would address the flaws it saw and how it would react if a similar situation arose.
Syracuse showed us something old and something new.
Upon falling back 15-6, Syracuse tightened up the defense. The Orange needed to extend the zone to the three-point line due to the long-distance accuracy of Cashmere Wright. It also had to find a way to get to the basket, since its cold spell from beyond the arc continued.
Sophomore forward C.J. Fair helped fuel a 9-0 run with a transition dunk and a tough baseline jumper and was only a matter of time until the rest of the team would catch on.
It would be another forward, Kris Joseph, who would put the Orange on his back with a variety of pull-up jumpers and thunderous dunks. The senior, Joseph, seemed to wake from his first-half, six-point effort to lead the team from despair.
So what did we learn?
We got a glimpse of what a Syracuse team will look like down the stretch should Fab Melo—when and if he returns—get into foul trouble. Cincinnati’s Yancy Gates was a dominant force in the middle of the Syracuse zone, but Syracuse’s Rakeem Christmas still managed nine rebounds to Gates’ 10 and blocked three shots to Gates’ none.
The Syracuse offense is reliant upon Fab Melo for transition because of his rebounding and shot-blocking, which the Orange run transition from. Melo averages seven rebounds and three blocks per game. Christmas was not a defensive force, but he filled in the role he was meant to play.
The other thing we learned is that Syracuse will go with the hot hand whenever available. At first it was James Southerland who attempted to get Syracuse going, but this time it was two hands, Fair and Joseph—with a little Scoop Jardine mixed in—who kept Syracuse in the game.
Syracuse can shoot the three, but it is not a three-point shooting team. When it is cold and when Dion Waiters has an off night, as he did against the Bearcats, the forwards will be the go-to performers for the Orange.
Most likely, Syracuse will not be tested the way it has in the last two games, but it is evident that Syracuse has a blueprint for the occasion.