Syracuse basketball fans had to expect it at some point.
In Saturday's ACC opener against Miami, the Syracuse offense struggled, but the defense carried the team to a 49-44 win over the visiting Hurricanes.
Notable in its absence was the net scorching of Trevor Cooney, who made only two of his 12 three-point attempts on the afternoon. Cooney did hit a couple of late free throws to help seal the win, but he just didn't have it from deep.
Syracuse fans had been spoiled by Cooney's 50 percent long-range shooting heading into the inaugural ACC contest. He was bound to cool off at some point. But the Orange didn't seem to have another option that could pick up the slack.
Perhaps it was the U's matchup zone defense that stymied the Orange. It certainly was a factor, but a team ranked second in the country with Final Four aspirations has to be able to muster more than 49 points at home.
Cooney isn't going to light it up every game. There are going to be off nights. So who is going to chip in? How can the Orange adjust to get other players involved when Cooney isn't feeling it? There are a few options to consider, which we'll outline below.
Let the Big Man Eat
One player who did come up big against Miami was Rakeem Christmas. He had eight points in the game and got two buckets down the stretch that helped the Orange get the win. We've discussed before how a fully engaged Christmas can take this team to another level. Maybe his 15 points against Eastern Michigan (tied for a career high) and his contributions against Miami can give him the confidence boost he needs.
Christmas said as much to Syracuse.com's Donna Ditota after Saturday's game:
I'm getting a lot more confident. Coach tells them to pass me the ball when I'm big like that in the post. So I just want to get big and get the ball in the post and go up strong.
Syracuse's main offensive action comes with a double screen on the baseline for Cooney, who runs from one side to the other under the basket. If he works himself open off these screens, he's got an open three on the wing. If not, C.J. Fair is soon to follow along the same path, so Cooney has the option to get it to Fair and let him work or swing it back to Tyler Ennis for a reset.
Fair, Cooney, Ennis and Jerami Grant serve as the main scoring options, so Syracuse doesn't run a lot of straight post-ups for the big men. With DaJuan Coleman battling an injury and Baye Keita acting as more of a defensive specialist, Christmas is left as the would-be beneficiary of inside looks.
Even if he doesn't have an Olajuwonian array of post moves, Christmas has still shown the ability to finish close to the basket. He has made 75.6 percent of his shots (31 out of 41) on the season, which leads the team. If he gets good post position, he has the athletic ability to finish over his defender.
And if Christmas starts going to work on the blocks, teams may consider sending a double-team his way. Double-teams usually come from the perimeter, so if Cooney's man starts to cheat into the paint, well, we know what he is capable of with an open look.
Shoot the J. Shoot it!
Syracuse has taken 217 three-pointers as a team through 14 games. Cooney and Fair have combined for 140 of those, which is to be expected from the two best shooters on the team. Ennis has put up 26 and Michael Gbinije has attempted 11. Gbinije has attempted less threes than B.J. Johnson and Ron Patterson (14 each), even though Gbinije plays about 10 more minutes a game than the freshmen.
In their limited attempts, both Ennis and Gbinije have made a respectable amount of threes. Ennis has hit 10 of 26 (38.5 percent), while Gbinije is 5-of-11 (45.5 percent) on the year. Both players could stand to hoist a few more when the opportunity presents itself.
Now, we're not suggesting that Gbinije and Ennis start jacking threes willy-nilly. They should, of course, let Cooney and Fair handle the heavy lifting from deep. But there have been plenty of instances where Ennis or Gbinije passed up an open look. Gbinije even admitted to Ditota after the slugfest with Miami that he needs to try to score more:
Lately in practice, I've been more aggressive and I've been looking for my own shot at times. It's something that's going to come. My comfort level is really good out there. Now it's just a matter of me seizing the opportunity. I turned down maybe one or two shots out there in the first half. But now, I'm noticing them.
Not only would an increase in shooting from Cooney's backcourt mates help increase scoring, it would potentially draw some attention away from Cooney. St. John's decided to load up on Cooney and take him out of the game, and it almost led to an upset at the Garden.
It's unreasonable to think Ennis or Gbinije could shoot it as well as Cooney. But they at least need to pose the threat that they may shoot to keep teams from only trying to shut down Cooney. Andy Rautins had backup from Kris Joseph, Wes Johnson and Eric Devendorf posing as long-range threats.
In addition, if Syracuse is able to stretch the floor with more than just Cooney, it will open things up inside and allow Christmas, Fair and Grant more room to work near the basket. Speaking of Grant...
Keep on Developing
This one is for Grant specifically. He hit a big jumper against Miami, but Grant's game is predicated on using his athleticism while slashing to the rim or on the offensive glass. He hasn't shown much consistency outside of the paint. See for yourself in Grant's shot chart for this year.
As Ditota points out in the above article, Grant has acted as the trigger man of the offense in the high post. This is especially true against other zone teams, as Grant has been the one to receive the ball in the open space by the foul line. From there, Grant has the option to shoot, drive or pass. Because he hasn't knocked down that shot regularly, teams are content to let him have it.
Now, Grant is still just a sophomore, so he's nowhere near a finished product. He's already got NBA-caliber hops, but if he develops that mid-range game, his game could jump, like he can, into the stratosphere.
Chances are the Orange aren't going to universally struggle on offense like they did against the Hurricanes. But we have seen that Cooney is a big part of the offense, and he's not going to be able to knock down five three-pointers each game. Fair is going to get his 15 to 20 points a night. But if these other players can become threats in their respective areas, they can give the team a boost when Cooney is struggling.