Syracuse Basketball: What We Learned from Orange's Recent Homestand

Justin NeumanContributor IIFebruary 3, 2014

Syracuse Basketball: What We Learned from Orange's Recent Homestand

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    Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

    After knocking off Duke in one of the greatest basketball games you'll see (and the best game of the weekend), Syracuse started off the week as the unanimous No. 1 team in the country.

    The Orange (22-0, 9-0 ACC) had no time to enjoy the victory as they had to turn right around and face Notre Dame in the Carrier Dome on Monday night. The Orange offense came back to earth and the crowd wasn't anywhere near as engaged as it was Saturday night, but Syracuse was able to grind out a 61-55 win.

    After two big wins in three days, Syracuse made a big statement about how good it is. The Orange continued the best start in school history and didn't allow Notre Dame to spoil the No. 1 party like it did in 2012.

    There are certainly a lot of things to take away from an all-time great game and the first game at the top of the polls. So what are the biggest lessons we learned from an outstanding homestand? Let's take a look at a few.

This Team Is Mentally Tough

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    After such an emotionally and physically draining game against Duke, the possibility was there for Syracuse to lay an egg against Notre Dame.

    But the Orange again came in and got the job done. The Irish put up a good fight, but Syracuse's defense was able to lock down on a night where most of the offense was struggling. The team was able to make plays when it needed them and not allow the opposition many easy looks.

    What is most important about this stretch is Syracuse essentially just played two tournament games. The Orange got a big win in a game that went down to the last play where each player gave everything he had. Then there was no time to relish in the win as they had to go out two days later and get another team's best shot.

    That is exactly what Syracuse can expect when tournament time rolls around. The team just showed it has the ability to turn the page after an emotional win and get ready for the next opponent. It's an especially important learning experience for Tyler Ennis, who hasn't been in that type of situation at this level.

    Being able to draw from this experience, Ennis and Syracuse will be ready for anything come March.

C.J. Fair Is a Legit POY Contender

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    Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

    This is something we have talked about before, but now the nation is on notice.

    C.J. Fair is simply one of the best players in the country. He lit up Duke for a career-high 28 points on 12-of-20 shooting. He took the game over in the second half, showing off his full arsenal by hitting shot after shot from the perimeter and inside.

    Not only did he put on a show offensively, but Fair went the distance and played the entire 45 minutes against Duke. That was the fourth time in a row Fair played the entire game, and it would have been the sixth if not for only playing 39 against Boston College. Overall, it was the seventh time this season Fair went wire to wire.

    After his best game of the season against Duke, Fair had arguably his worst against Notre Dame. He managed only six points on 2-of-13 shooting. But after exerting so much energy on the offensive end against Duke, he was bound to have tired legs the next time out. Even the best players have off nights.

    Doug McDermott and his gaudy scoring numbers may be leading the pack right now, but Fair has to come up in the next breath of any Player of the Year debate.

Trevor Cooney Is Back

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    KEVIN RIVOLI/Associated Press

    We all know about how well Trevor Cooney was shooting before ACC play started. Then conference play hit, and Cooney's play regressed a bit. Heading into the Duke game, Cooney had hit just 25 percent (14 of 56) of his three-pointers against ACC opponents.

    Cooney made both of the deep ones he took against Duke and also contributed a few close-range buckets to finish with 14 points.

    And then Notre Dame came to town, and Cooney just went off. On a night when the rest of his teammates were struggling, Cooney said "I got us" and exploded for a career-high 33 points. He hit nine of the 12 threes he attempted. Those nine makes were also a career high and tied a school record for threes made in a game.

    And these weren't all open shots Cooney just stepped into. Some were, but others were so deep he might as well have been shooting from Manley Field House. A few were just daggers he buried into Notre Dame's back after running off several screens, catching and shooting, a la Gerry McNamara and Andy Rautins before him.

    The 33-point eruption is just what Cooney needed. It will surely do wonders for his confidence to know he was able to shoot well and carry the offense on a night when he was truly needed.

    For Syracuse to be successful on offense, it is imperative Cooney stretches the floor. After a slow conference start, it appears Cooney is back on track.

     

Rakeem Christmas Is a Made Man

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    We have used this space a few times before to question whether Rakeem Christmas is fully committed to his role.

    After Saturday's game against Duke, let me go on record as saying I am now in agreement with Gene Siudut; Christmas is stepping up, and then some, in DaJuan Coleman's absence.

    Risking hyperbole, Christmas played his single best game since he has been in a Syracuse uniform. He earned his 34 minutes with aggression on both ends of the floor. He put in seven points, grabbed 10 rebounds (four offensive), blocked six shots and made three of his four free throws.

    And in the climactic make-or-break moment of the game, Christmas sent Rodney Hood right to bed without his dinner.

    There was a lot made of that play after the game. Some wanted a foul call. But that, especially in that spot, was a clean block. Incidental body contact aside, the refs are not going to make that call in that spot unless the blocker pulls the shooter's arm down.

    As far as the other questionable calls go Christmas was involved with, Amile Jefferson hooked Christmas' arm, and even though Christmas may have embellished it a bit, that is still a foul. And on the Jabari Parker elbow, well, that was a bad call. But if it looks like a foul to the ref, he is going to call it. And give credit to Christmas for making it look like a foul. It's not like Duke has never gotten the benefit of the doubt with the whistle.

    Either way, Rakeem Christmas has arrived. He didn't play as well against Notre Dame, but after that performance against Duke, Syracuse fans are fully behind the big man. If he continues his recent level of play, Syracuse will be difficult to beat.

There Is Still a Long Way to Go

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    Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

    So Syracuse just beat Duke, who shot the lights out (15-of-36 from deep) and had been playing as well as anyone in the country. Then the Orange were able to come right back and grind out another win after ascending to the summit of the national rankings.

    After all that, Syracuse should be able to keep on rolling through the ACC to the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, right?

    Not so fast.

    As if being the newcomer to a conference and getting off to a hot start doesn't make for a big enough target, now the Orange are the top team in the country. You probably don't need to be told Syracuse will face every team's A-game from here.

    Syracuse is also staring down the barrel of a murderous February schedule. Five of the final nine games for the Orange are on the road, including four out of the last five. The team has to travel to Pittsburgh, where it hasn't won since George W. Bush's first term. The Orange also have to visit Duke, Maryland and Virginia in three straight games as well as closing out the season at Florida State.

    And it's not even like the Orange have a stranglehold on the conference. Syracuse sits atop the ACC at 9-0, but Virginia is right behind at 8-1. The Cavaliers have a much easier schedule the rest of the way, so there is still plenty of work to do if Syracuse wants to take the ACC crown on its first try.

    With almost a week off until Clemson comes to the Carrier Dome, the Syracuse players have plenty of time to rest their legs. The much-needed opportunity to recharge the batteries will be key as Syracuse gears up for the home stretch.