The Syracuse Orange successfully began their inaugural ACC campaign with a 49-44 win over Miami.
Well, kind of successfully.
Giving the Orange fits, and a dose of their own medicine, Miami’s matchup zone prevented Syracuse from getting into any kind of offensive flow but solid defense, clutch baskets from C.J. Fair and Rakeem Christmas and Trevor Cooney shaking off his 2-of-12 performance from the field to sink a couple timely free throws sealed the hard-fought victory.
Syracuse (14-0, 1-0 ACC) kept its No. 2 ranking in both major polls and was part of the trio of Big East newcomers to take out their first ACC opponents with Notre Dame’s win over Duke and Pittsburgh’s win over North Carolina State.
The No. 2 team in the country, however, should not have struggled so mightily with Miami, indicating that perhaps they are a little overrated. That doesn’t mean they won’t end up being the best team in the country by year’s end. A good sign of this was an astute observation by Mike Waters of the Syracuse Post-Standard.
Waters pointed out that not including Syracuse, the top nine teams in the AP poll are a combined 111-3. Of those three losses, two were to Syracuse (No. 7 Baylor and No. 8 Villanova).
Maybe the rest of the poll is a little overrated, too.
Regardless, the Orange must shake off their poor offensive performance quickly with a trip to Virginia Tech on Tuesday and then a voyage back home to face North Carolina on Saturday.
While the Orange showed poise in handling Miami in the closing minutes, there were also issues that will need to be addressed such as how they will play against other teams that try to employ a zone defense and how to deal with Trevor Cooney off-nights.
With that in mind, we take a look at the concerns the Orange have going into ACC play.
While no one lit up the stat sheet against Miami, Rakeem Christmas put in a performance just as important as any.
With DaJuan Coleman sidelined with an ailing left leg and coach Jim Boeheim only going with a seven-man lineup, Christmas needed to have a good game. He scored a career-high 15 points against Eastern Michigan on New Year’s Eve but played poor defense and only grabbed three rebounds.
Against Miami, Christmas played aggressively, scored eight and pulled down seven rebounds in a performance that reminded Orange fans of his value.
The highlight of his game had to be an offensive rebound he grabbed off a C.J. Fair miss, which he made an impossible putback by contorting his body in mid-air to get the Orange within one with 7:22 left in the game.
Christmas is an incredible talent when he wants to be. He is a very good defender and is athletic as anyone on the team. If he can use the Miami game as a springboard and play to his potential, Syracuse becomes a much more dangerous team.
DaJuan Coleman has a left knee contusion and has missed the last two games for the Orange. He dressed for the Miami game, but barring an absolute emergency, there was no chance he was getting into the game.
Last season, Coleman missed eight games due to a knee injury on the same leg but the injuries are said to be unrelated. He is a game-time decision against Virginia Tech on Jan. 7.
The Orange need Coleman in the lineup. He is a big presence on the court and while his 4.7 points per game and 4.3 rebounds per game don’t illustrate his worth, he is valued.
Coleman being on the sideline thrusts sophomore Jerami Grant into the starting lineup, which gives coach Boeheim less flexibility from his bench. With senior Baye Keita being a defensive specialist and an offensive liability, Coleman’s absence would make scoring on the blocks much more difficult.
Trevor Cooney dropped his three-point percentage from 50 percent made to 45.9 percent made with his 2-of-12 performance against Miami.
While his percentage is still very good, Jim Boeheim may not be as willing to let Cooney try to shoot his way out of a bad game the way he did against the Hurricanes.
Tyler Ennis and C.J. Fair would be the other two three-point options when necessary, though not by design. But they only shot three three-pointers combined, with one made by Fair.
Cooney is the go-to outside threat, but when his shot isn’t falling, it will be interesting to see how the Orange compensate.
Tyler Ennis has been fantastic in his freshman season with crisp passing and very few turnovers. His defense is that of a seasoned vet and as the season progresses, he is developing a floater in the lane that is almost automatic.
It seems the sky is the limit for Ennis, but where is the sky?
While his opponents haven’t figured out a way to hold him back, playing time may.
Ennis is averaging 32.5 minutes per game, which is still three minutes shy of Jonny Flynn’s 35.5 minutes per game as a freshman, but they are significant minutes.
Nothing has happened yet to show Ennis can’t handle the workload, but the season is long and in the guard-heavy ACC, fatigue could become a factor.
Jerami Grant is an obvious athletic talent. He can jump through the roof and throw down thunder dunks, grab impossible rebounds and is a decent defender.
Whether off the bench or starting in place of DaJuan Coleman, Grant is a spark plug with very few flaws. He’s even improved his free-throw shooting, which was a weakness for him, from .562 last season to .649 this season.
Grant has been hyped as someone who could make the leap to the NBA but what’s missing from his game is a medium-range jumper.
He can hit shots, just not consistently.
We’re splitting hairs here, but with all of the tools Grant has available, developing his game away from the basket could make him a force to be reckoned with.