A double-double from C.J. Fair and five three-pointers helped Syracuse outlast the hard-pressing Minnesota Golden Gophers, 75-67, at the Maui Invitational on Monday.
Still unbeaten, Syracuse will next face California in Hawaii on Tuesday night, but with five games in the books, the identity of this Syracuse men's basketball team is becoming clearer while the season forecast remains cloudy. There is obvious talent on this team, yet pegging the Orange as one of the 10 top teams in the nation seems a bit premature.
This is not to say that the Orange will not become one of the best teams in the nation as the season progresses, but before beating Minnesota, the Orange struggled to put two decent halves together in any of their four previous games.
Syracuse stayed poised and calm against the aggressive Gophers. Trevor Cooney looked more confident in going 5-of-11 from beyond the arc and the Orange shot better than 80 percent from the charity stripe, DaJuan Coleman continued to blossom in his role as cleanup man under the basket and there was even a sighting of an aggressive Rakeem Christmas.
The size of Syracuse will be tested against the longer and taller Golden Bears, which should reveal more about the maturity of Syracuse and the direction which it is headed.
For now, we will look into the crystal ball and try to see what changes may be coming for the Orange as the season barrels forward.
Michael Gbinije came into the season as someone who would offer relief at the point for Tyler Ennis, an able off-guard in Trevor Cooney’s stead and a possible fill-in for the three spot when necessary.
So far, Gbinije has not only been a relief valve for Ennis, but has replaced Cooney as well.
It seems to be that Ennis will remain a tandem with Gbinije as the season goes on.
Ennis has struggled from the field, shooting 2-of-17 in his last two games. This could be freshman jitters or fatigue from averaging almost 30 minutes per game. Regardless, he has shown maturity in succeeding in other areas of his game.
In his debut against Cornell, Ennis missed all six of his attempts from the field, but compensated with eight rebounds, seven assists, two steals, a blocked shot, and committed only one foul with two turnovers.
Against Minnesota, Ennis only shot 1-of-9 from the field, but still managed 12 points by going 10-of-11 from the free-throw line with four rebounds, five assists, five steals and zero turnovers.
This all adds up to great maturity, but the rumors of him being a one-and-done player may be a bit premature.
Gbinije is shooting nearly 50 percent in limited time this season while playing effective defense with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.33. He is a nice change-of-pace guard to Ennis and at 6’7” and 200 pounds, provides the length that is missing from last year’s Orange squad.
Ennis is a star in the making, but don’t be surprised if coach Jim Boeheim starts giving Ennis more relief as Gbinije’s minutes increase.
DaJuan Coleman has been a pleasant surprise for the Orange.
Listed at 6’9” and 280 pounds, he has come back for his sophomore season in great shape and is likely closer to 260 pounds.
Coleman is aggressive around the basket when looking for rebounds and seems very eager to grab every putback he can touch.
Coleman’s effort is noticeable, as he has averaged 12.5 points and five rebounds over the last two games while averaging only 17 minutes. He has improved every area of his game and should be rewarded with more playing time in the crowded Syracuse frontcourt.
In his third season in an Orange uniform, Rakeem Christmas still seems to be the invisible man.
Last season, Christmas saw his minutes double to over 20 minutes per game as a sophomore, yet his 5.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game were barely noticeable.
This season, averaging roughly the same amount of minutes, Christmas has lowered his scoring average to 4.8 points and his rebounding to 4.3 per game.
The bright side is that Christmas has been highly efficient in his shooting with a 70 percent field goal average, but with him only taking 2.6 shots per game, his presence on the court seems wasted.
Syracuse fans have been waiting for Christmas to show off his obvious athletic skills, but he seems content to disappear into games.
Perhaps Christmas showed that he is ready to start getting more involved with his 3-of-4 performance from the field against Minnesota. It was the first game since the opener against Cornell that he attempted more than two shots, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt…for now.
If Christmas doesn’t become more involved in the Syracuse offense, players hungry for minutes—such as Jerami Grant, DaJuan Coleman and Baye Keita—could all absorb the time that he is wasting.
Trevor Cooney started the season with a bang, making 7-of-8 from the three-point line and scoring 27 points to earn this season’s first ACC Player of the Week award.
He followed that performance by going 1-of-9 from the outside in his next two games.
His 2-of-5 performance from the floor against St. Francis showed signs of hope and his 5-of-11 effort against Minnesota cemented his status as a weapon.
Cooney has been a 45 percent three-point shooter this season, which is exactly where the Orange need him. He’s obviously a streak shooter, but his quickness is deceptive and he can create his own shot.
With an embarrassment of riches at the forward spot and no other outside threats, head coach Jim Boeheim has been forced to go with Cooney in hopes that his legendary practice shooting would translate to actual games.
Boeheim and the rest of the coaching staff are probably sleeping a little better knowing that Cooney is showing he has the confidence and poise to be the shooter that they thought he could be.
Going into its game against Minnesota, Syracuse was shooting only 61.7 percent from the free-throw line.
Jeramu Grant, DaJuan Coleman and Michael Gbinije have each been shooting under 50 percent from the stripe. With the new rules creating more foul opportunities, that will not be good enough in close games.
Syracuse’s fortunes at the line against Minnesota seemed to improve, as the Orange went 22-of-27 from the stripe.
Gbinije and Grant hit all six of their attempts while Tyler Ennis went 10-of-11, which was a great sign considering that he had only made 65 percent of his previous free-throw attempts this season.
Free throws are an essential part of any team’s success. Even with the immense talent of Grant, it would not be a stretch to imagine Grant getting the hook in the closing minutes of a game if his free-throw problems continue.
This is a problem that can be corrected, but coach Jim Boeheim's hand may be forced if it doesn't.