With 17 games in the books, the No. 2 Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team is unblemished and looking like a title contender.
Syracuse (17-0, 4-0 ACC) is using a talented mix of youth and experience to climb to the top of the ACC and in a down year for the formidable conference, the Orange are the runaway favorite to capture the conference crown in their first year in the league.
It hasn’t all been roses, though.
While Syracuse is winning with solid defense and timely shooting, poor perimeter defense has allowed seemingly inferior opponents to stay competitive in games. Teams such as Villanova and Boston College were able to land early body blows to the Orange with three-point shooting but were not able to find scoring from other areas. Should the Orange run into a team that is able to sink its threes and work an inside-out game, they could end up in trouble.
As it is, however, Syracuse has shown that it can excel when needed. There isn't any one facet of the Orange game opponents fear, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The Orange clamp down on defense whenever threatened and when shots aren't falling, Tyler Ennis and company find ways to drive to the rim to keep games manageable.
The Orange will host the No. 22 Pittsburgh Panthers (15-1, 3-0) on Saturday, in what is shaping up to be the fight for the title of king of the ACC mountain.
In the mean time, we will take a look back at some of the highs and lows of the season.
High: Trevor Cooney's 27-Point Breakout
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In his first year as a starter, Trevor Cooney was given the reins of the Syracuse outside game.
With James Southerland, Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams gone, Cooney would be the key to keeping defenses honest by forcing them to guard him on the outside…if he could make his shots.
Cooney shot just 26.7 percent from three-point range last season, but he played sporadic minutes and was never able to find a consistent rhythm. Billed as a shooter, Cooney had something to prove.
A summer of conditioning, lots of shooting and the tutelage of Gerry McNamara proved to be the recipe Cooney needed to succeed.
In the season opener against Cornell, Cooney burned up the nets with a 7-of-8 performance from distance. He finished the game with 27 points, only missing two shots the entire game. His effort would earn him the season’s first ACC Player of the Week award and served notice that there was a new three-point sheriff in town.
Low: St. Francis Terriers' Near Upset
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St. Francis started the season with a win in a 66-62 overtime thriller against a tough Miami team.
The vastly inferior Terriers proved to not be so inferior against the then-No.9 Orange on Nov. 18, and had it not been for the heroics of Jerami Grant in the last minute of play in which he tied the game with a putback and then subsequently stole the ball, the stories of Syracuse's season may have been vastly different.
Syracuse has since improved its play, but that St. Francis game was a warning shot across the bow that preseason rankings don’t mean anything.
High: Syracuse Wins the Maui Invitational
Maui Invitational MVP C.J. Fair
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Syracuse and its head coach, Jim Boeheim, often get criticized for playing an easy schedule early in the season and for not leaving the state of New York until conference play starts.
This season, Syracuse went out to Hawaii and won the Maui Invitational by handling three quality opponents.
Minnesota, California and Baylor all fell in consecutive days to the upstart Orange and gave Boeheim reason to believe he had a special team on his hands.
C.J. Fair won the tournament's MVP award, and Boeheim continued his undefeated streak in the Maui Invitational by winning his third tournament in three tries.
Low: The Rak Plateau
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Rakeem Christmas is the riddle beyond all Syracuse riddles. He has the athleticism of a decathlete and at 6’9”, 250 pounds, his body is tailor-made for the NBA.
Coming into his junior season, Christmas seemed primed for a breakout season. His sophomore year, he averaged just 5.1 points per game, but grabbed 4.6 rebounds per game and averaged almost two blocks per game.
With Brandon Triche, James Southerland and Michael Carter-Williams gone, who were the team’s second-, third- and fourth-highest scorers, Christmas had the opportunity to lead the charge of the Syracuse big men.
After 17 games, Christmas is only attempting 2.9 shots per game for just 5.3 points per game. His rebounding is down to 3.9 per game, and while he still plays good defense, his offensive giddy up just isn’t there.
It’s time for us to accept the Rakeem Christmas is never going to be the dominator on the blocks that he was projected to be. With a shooting percentage of .714, one would think that Rak would chomp at the bit to get the ball near the hoop, but he seems willing to let the game flow around him and get involved by proximity rather than aggression.
He’s still an extremely valuable piece of the Syracuse lineup, just not a visible one.
High: Owning Villanova
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While Syracuse is 17-0, it is also 5-0 against current and former Big East teams.
St. John’s, Villanova, Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College have all fallen to the Orange, but Villanova played the biggest role in shaping this year’s team.
The Wildcats started the game on Dec. 28 by nailing four consecutive three-pointers and ran out to a 25-7 lead at the Carrier Dome.
The Orange responded by going on a 20-0 run and continued to keep the high-scoring Wildcats at bay.
Every time Villanova got close, the Orange would respond with a little spurt, and while the final score was 78-62, it could have been worse for the Wildcats.
At 15-1, this game is still the only blemish on the season for No. 6 Villanova, and it proved to the Orange players that they could overcome nearly any deficit.