After matching the best start in school history, the Syracuse men’s basketball team finds itself coming home to face Duke on Saturday, Feb. 1. The switch to the ACC from the Big East has been an unblemished one for Syracuse, but the Orange are finding that the ACC is just as unfriendly as the Big East.
No. 2 Syracuse (20-0, 7-0 ACC) left Wake Forest (14-7, 4-4) with its first loss at home, 67-57, but the 10-point victory is not indicative of the closeness of the game.
The Demon Deacons pulled to within five points of the Orange with 4:10 left in regulation, but as per usual, the Syracuse defense clamped down and allowed only three field goals the rest of the game.
Excluding Pitt, which always plays physical, the ACC experience has mostly been teams trying to shoot over the Syracuse zone, which has allowed the Orange to stay out of foul trouble. In the spirit of an old-fashioned fist fight with Marquette, Wake Forest was physical, drove to the rim and succeeded in getting the Orange into foul trouble early.
After only six minutes, Rakeem Christmas, who was playing well, got called for his second foul. At the 8:38 mark, Trevor Cooney was whistled for his third foul. Adding to the misery of Syracuse was Baye Keita getting called for a silly third foul with only 1:38 left in the first half.
With DaJuan Coleman out for the rest of the season because of a knee surgery, the Orange bench has become a much bigger commodity. Keita was the second big man off the bench, with Jerami Grant being the first, but Grant has been thrust into the starting role, and Keita is the only safety valve the Orange have in terms of big men.
Perhaps the ACC is learning a bit more about how to play Syracuse, with this game against Wake Forest being a blueprint of the Orange’s weaknesses.
With the Duke game upon the Carrier Dome, we take a look back at ACC play for the Orange so far and what lessons can be learned as they enter the second trimester of the ACC schedule.
Just counting conference play, the Orange haven’t exactly burned up the nets.
In the 15-team ACC, after seven conference games, Syracuse is No. 12 in scoring with 62.4 points per game, No. 12 in field-goal percentage at .418, No. 12 in three-point percentage at .302 and No. 12 in assists with 9.7 per game.
This team has yet to put on an offensive show in conference, and it may not. This has been a team of streaks and timely baskets. When Syracuse needs baskets, it has reliable players such as Tyler Ennis and C.J. Fair to take control.
The Orange have players who can score, as evident by the fact that every starter has led the team in scoring in at least one game this season, including the sidelined DaJuan Coleman and his replacement, Jerami Grant.
Perhaps this is why the Orange don’t score more points. They look for the hot hand and go with it until it gets cold and then look for the next hot hand.
This team is still going through a growing process, so expect to see scoring increase somewhat but not too much as the Orange have a few tough road games including trips to Duke and Pittsburgh.
For as low as the Orange rank in the conference in offense, they excel on the defensive side of the court.
In conference, the Orange are No. 1 in scoring defense with 51.9 points per game, No. 3 in field-goal percentage defense at .394, No. 1 in rebounding margin at plus-7.4 per game, No. 2 in blocked shots with five per game and No. 1 in steals with 7.3 per game.
Syracuse rode a wave of defense to the Final Four last season and seems to have picked up where it left off this season.
The truth is likely the fact that the teams in the ACC have not seen the Syracuse 2-3 zone and will probably take a few years to adjust or at least learn an efficient way to attack it.
I never thought I’d write these words, but Syracuse, at least for this season, has become a defense-first team. Instead of trying to outscore teams, the Orange are just suffocating opposing offenses.
When I say we were wrong, I really mean I was wrong.
It’s an interesting world we sportswriters occupy. We observe players, and we assume we’ve figured out their attitudes and psyches through a 40-minute window of game time by observing stats and body language.
We see a young player such as Christmas and throw out phrases like, “If I had size like that, I’d be unstoppable,” or, “If he’d only apply himself more, he’d be a star.”
I admit that I have been guilty of this on more than one occasion when referring to Rakeem Christmas.
That ends today.
I see a man who has been blessed with physical abilities and characteristics that I could only dream of and I look at a stat sheet and wonder why he hasn’t been more present. This thinking translates into sharp criticism.
After it was announced that DaJuan Coleman would be out the rest of the season due to knee surgery, I thought that this would be a golden opportunity for Christmas to show his aggressive side.
The simple truth is it doesn’t matter what I, or anyone else, thinks about being motivated or passionate or involved in the offense. His coaches and teammates are the only ones who can honestly criticize those aspects.
Rakeem Christmas doesn’t have to be a star. He only has to be what his coaches ask him to be, but for what it’s worth, he looked like a new man against Wake Forest. He was the only offense for the Orange in the beginning of the game.
In fact, his two field goals early on were the only field goals scored by the Orange until C.J. Fair’s three-pointer with 8:53 left in the first half. He was called for his second foul just six minutes into the first half and wouldn’t return until Baye Keita got into foul trouble with 1:38 left in the half.
In just six minutes and 38 seconds of playing time in the first half, Christmas managed four points, two blocks and five rebounds. He was aggressive to the basket and very active on defense and was noticeably involved in the game.
There was something about this performance that made me go back and watch the last few Syracuse games again to see what was different.
What I found is that there wasn’t anything different except my expectations. He played with the same intensity and moved well within the zone. He showed passion and a willingness to be involved.
I don’t think this is something a player can turn on and off, which leads me to believe that I’ve been wrong about Rakeem.
If he doesn’t fit into what I think he should be on the court but his coaches are good with him, that’s not his problem, it’s my problem.
Fair, Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant get most of the ink when Syracuse is written about, but Rakeem Christmas is a vital part of this team and should not be forgotten nor dismissed.
Other than Syracuse, Duke and Pitt seem to be the only other true players in the ACC.
Duke dismantled Pitt, which Syracuse recently beat as well, albeit in a much closer game, but these three teams might be it.
Virginia has played well but lost to every ranked team it has faced.
North Carolina has a few good wins but is far too inconsistent to be considered for the top grouping.
This leaves us Duke and Syracuse, which will play Round 1 on Saturday at the Carrier Dome and Round 2 on Feb. 22 in front of the Cameron Crazies.
The ACC may get five or six bids to the NCAA tournament, but there is a very short list of contenders from the conference.
Against Wake Forest, Syracuse held a 52-47 lead with 5:32 remaining in the game.
The Orange allowed only three field goals the rest of the game, and each one was in the last 1:10 of regulation and meaningless to the outcome of the game.
In the previous game on Jan. 25 against Miami, the Hurricanes tied Syracuse at 46-46 with 8:20 left in regulation.
The Orange picked up the defensive pressure and only allowed one field goal the rest of the game in the 64-52 win for Syracuse.
The game before that, against Pitt on Jan. 18, Syracuse was down 49-48 with 6:02 to go in regulation after a Lamar Patterson three-point shot.
The Orange would once again not allow a field goal the rest of the game and came away with a 59-54 victory.
This trend shows the Orange’s ability to adjust on the fly and take away perceived weaknesses in the zone. It doesn’t hurt that the Orange are No. 3 in ACC play in free-throw percentage (.702), which has helped them in crunch time.
It also helps to have Tyler Ennis play Superman in the last five minutes of each game, but it all comes from the defense, and when a team can shut down an opponent for long stretches of time as the Orange have been able to do, they become very difficult to beat.