The Syracuse basketball team faced by far its toughest test as it eked out a 56-50 win over St. Francis on Monday night. The Orange were trailing for most of the second half against the Terriers but fought back despite shooting a ghastly 35.3 percent.
The going only gets tougher from here as the team jets off to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational. If Syracuse gets to the championship round in Maui, Gonzaga or Baylor could be waiting. They are ranked 12th and 21st respectively in the USA Today Coaches Poll, so they would provide a step up in competition.
Upon returning home, Indiana and Villanova come to town with a few Binghamtons and High Points sprinkled in. There's also the trip to Madison Square Garden (aka Syracuse South) for a date with St. John's.
And then before you know it, we'll be ringing in the New Year and ACC play will begin. After struggling with St. Francis, Syracuse could very well stumble against these tough opponents.
But the team has the talent to be a contender. They can't, however, win consistently if they shoot 42.5 percent (the season average). Read on to find out what the Orange must work on to make it to the ACC unblemished.
Believe it or not, you need to score more points than the other team to win in athletic competition. Yes, a strong defense can make a difference (and Syracuse has one), but ultimately you need to be able to get buckets when the other team is dong everything it can to stop you.
Syracuse's 12 steals a night (ninth in the country) do lead to fast-break opportunities, but the half-court offense still needs some fine-tuning.
Right now, the Orange average 12.3 assists per game, which is good for a 206th-place tie nationally. When the offense struggles, as it did against St. Francis, the ball stops moving and everyone stands around and watches one guy try to go one-on-one.
With athletes like C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant on the wings, more pick-and-rolls could be used to get these high-flyers slashing to the rim or popping out for an elbow jumper. Fair has made a few of those in his day. When the defense collapses to stop the rolls to the rim, it will create open looks on the perimeter for Trevor Cooney and others.
It could also create opportunities for dump-offs to the big men. DaJuan Coleman is especially adept at cleaning up the offensive glass and finishing around the rim (four offensive rebounds a night and 64.3 percent shooting). And if Rakeem Christmas feels like getting involved, things will only get tougher for opponents as they scramble to match up.
By now, everyone knows one sure-fire way to beat a zone is to get hot from deep. Mention the name T.J. Sorrentine or Jimmy Baron to a 'Cuse fan and watch their eye start to twitch. With so much attention being paid to the deep ball, the zone starts to cheat the perimeter and Syracuse sometimes forgets to lock up the paint.
Against St. Francis, Jalen Cannon got loose repeatedly underneath and finished with 16 points on 5-of-10 shooting. Cannon didn't attempt a three-pointer. And by the way, he is only 6'6", whereas Christmas and Coleman are 6'9" and Fair and Grant are 6'8".
What's going to happen when Indiana rolls in with freshman Noah Vonleh? The 13th-ranked player in this year's freshman class, Vonleh is averaging 14.8 points and 12.5 rebounds a game. Assuming Tom Crean studied up on how to attack a zone after last year, Vonleh will most likely factor heavily into the game plan.
Jim Boeheim had this to say after the nail-biter with St. Francis, per with Syracuse.com:
We played three teams that were really doing nothing but shooting on the perimeter. This is the first team that got the ball on the post and we just weren't in good position. Our centers were not in good position. They scored 29 points in the paint. That's more than half of their points.
They say the three-pointer is the great equalizer in basketball, and it is. Playing a zone sometimes invites the opponent to start hoisting it, so the Orange are right to do all they can to limit open looks outside. But they need to be sure they don't neglect the paint.
With a week off between the St. Francis game and the trip to Maui, there is plenty of time to try to ameliorate some of these issues. Naturally, everything can't get sorted out in such a short time. But after getting all they could handle from the Terriers, Syracuse now has the blueprint for what will help them win over the long haul.