Just nine games into the season, the Syracuse Orange find themselves as the No. 2 team in the nation, according to the newest poll of the Associated Press.
After being ranked No. 8 in the preseason, the Orange (9-0) have only Arizona above them in the rankings. Last season’s Syracuse squad, which made it all the way to the Final Four, was never ranked higher than No. 3, and that was for just one week.
While the rankings this early in the season don’t mean much, they do illustrate Syracuse’s knack for keeping the cupboard stocked with talent.
Going into this season, Syracuse waved goodbye to Michael Carter-Williams, James Southerland and Brandon Triche. Freshman Tyler Ennis replaces Carter-Williams at the point, and Trevor Cooney takes Triche’s spot at the two guard, his starting position for four years.
Cooney would also take over for Southerland as the team’s outside shooter
In their opening game, the Orange played Cornell and trailed by 14 points before cutting the deficit to 38-32 at the half. Syracuse pulled away for an 82-60 win thanks to a 27-point effort by Cooney. However, coach Jim Boeheim knew his team had some work ahead.
After the game, Boeheim stated,
“We’re not last year’s team. Michael Carter-Williams would have gone by those guys and dunked six times. He’s not here. That’s something we have to adjust to. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Speaking about the loss of Carter-Williams and Triche and the lofty expectations of this year’s team, Boeheim added,
“When you lose those two guys? And you're playing a freshman guard and a sophomore guard that didn't play last year. I don't know what people see. Maybe I don't know basketball, I guess.”
Boeheim’s caution regarding this team was understandable, but after Cooney and Ennis’ defense helped steer Syracuse’s dismantling of Indiana on Dec. 3, he seems to be coming around to the optimistic side, offering,
“They played well, both guards, the whole Hawaii trip. Those two kids, they’ve really played well. One’s a first-year player; the other guy really didn’t play a lot last year so I don’t think you could ask for them to play at a higher level than what they have played. It’s really been amazing the level of play that they’ve had. They’ve really picked up the whole team. I don’t think you could say enough about how they’ve played this year.”
Syracuse’s success, so far, is more than Cooney and Ennis. C.J. Fair has become the go-to guy, and Jerami Grant is emerging as a star. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how this team has grown in the early season.
Trevor Cooney didn’t get much playing time last year with just over 11 minutes per game.
This season, he’s averaging just over 29 minutes per game, and it seems to have made all the difference.
Cooney’s already made 31 three-point shots on just 64 attempts (48.4 percent), which is three more than he made all last season, going 28-of-105 (26.7 percent). He’s more than tripled his steals with 2.1 per game versus 0.6 last season, and he’s raised his overall scoring average from 3.4 points per game to 15.3.
All the time and effort Cooney has put over the offseason has paid off exponentially. With the confidence of his teammates and coaches, Cooney is well on his way to a season to remember.
Senior forward C.J. Fair was last season’s leading scorer for the Orange, and after watching him play for three seasons, it was no surprise when the ACC media chose Fair as their preseason favorite for ACC Player of the Year.
Fair was expected to be the star of this team, but his transition has been almost seamless. While Cooney splashes threes and Jerami Grant accosts the rims, Fair has been the steady workhorse.
If it is possible to score almost 18 points per game and stay quiet about it, Fair is doing it.
Fair has a professional approach to his game, and the surprise comes when he misses the occasional shot from the elbow.
Not much about Fair’s game has changed other than his acceptance as the team leader by taking more shots, making more shots and assuming the role as the focal point of opposing defenses.
But this ascension into the leadership role is a great transition for Syracuse. Losing Triche, Southerland and Carter-Williams would be tough for any team. Fair has taken it in stride.
Jerami Grant has been fantastic in his sophomore campaign.
Playing off the bench, Grant plays the Dion Waiters role of instant offense, but his ability to sky over the rim makes him a player to be feared.
Grant’s athleticism was a known quantity. What wasn’t known was if he could become a better free-throw shooter. Last season, Grant played enough to attempt 73 free throws but only converted 41 (56.2 percent).
With the new defensive rules and players going to the line more often, Grant would need to improve at the line to not be a liability for the team.
Grant started the season hitting just 11-of-24 from the charity stripe (45.8 percent).
Since those first three games, Grant has converted 16-of-20 (80 percent).
While it’s still early, it is an important part of Grant’s game. If defenses believe Grant can’t make his free throws, then it would be Hack-a-Grant time. Grant’s ability to hit free throws late will also give his coaches confidence to keep him on the floor in crunch time.
This was a necessary improvement for Grant.
Tyler Ennis’ transition into the starting point guard for Syracuse as a freshman has been miraculous.
Even in his debut game against Cornell, when he only scored one point, Ennis still managed eight rebounds and seven assists.
For the season, Ennis is averaging 11.3 points per game and is handing out 4.9 assists per game. He has adjusted quickly into the Syracuse defense, which is evident by his 2.7 steals per game. His assist-to-turnover ratio is nearly 5-to-1, which would be outstanding for any player on any level.
Ennis lets the game come to him, takes shots when needed and when his shot isn’t falling, finds other ways to contribute.
That’s on-the-job maturity that can’t be taught. He’s made the effort to better himself each game. Ennis’ growth to this point is an unexpected blessing.