Top-ranked Syracuse survived an off night from C.J. Fair against Notre Dame thanks to the three-point heroics of Trevor Cooney and the Orange remained undefeated with nine games left in the regular season.
Syracuse (22-0, 9-0 ACC) was privy to an unconscious shooting performance from Cooney as he went 9-of-12 from distance, which tied the Orange record for most made threes in a game (McNamara, Rautins and Southerland). His career-high 33 points helped secure the 61-55 win over Notre Dame (12-11, 3-7), which held Fair to six points on 2-of-13 shooting from the field.
Syracuse improved its record against former and present Big East teams to 8-0, with a trip to Pittsburgh on Feb. 12, and a home game against Boston College a week later to complete the trip down memory lane.
That game at Pitt will be the only road game for the Orange over the next four. After that game, Syracuse will finish the season playing four of its last five games on the road. With half of the ACC schedule done, Syracuse will try to justify its No. 1 ranking with games at Duke on Feb. 22, at Virginia on Mar. 1 and the aforementioned Pitt as the marquee contests remaining.
In a normal season, teams would revel in the chance to defeat Syracuse. This season, that No. 1 ranking and the undefeated status of the Orange places an extra large bull’s-eye on their backs.
The Orange won’t surprise any teams with their style of play but they will use the remaining games to continue to improve and get ready for the postseason. This will include cleaning up the zone on the perimeter and finding ways to generate more offense.
Let’s take a deeper look at what else might be in order for the Orange for the remainder of the regular season.
Short answer: Probably not.
While anything is possible, the Orange still have five road games, including at Duke on Feb. 22, and to think they can survive unblemished is a testament to how well this team has played together.
No team ever wants to lose a game but there is a school of thought that losing a game or two builds character and keeps a team hungry. I would say the Orange have played so many close games, a loss isn’t necessarily a problem solver.
I’m positive Jim Boeheim would rather have a second national championship than an undefeated regular season. I would expect Syracuse to come out and try to beat every team, but it won’t be the end of the world if it does not.
That is why the focus of this team must be the postseason. More consistent offense and a better perimeter defense will be just some of the areas coach Boeheim will look to improve.
To put it another way, it’s tough to win on the road in conference, no matter how talented the team.
DaJuan Coleman’s knee surgery, which took him out for the rest of the season, hasn’t affected the Orange’s play in terms of wins and losses, but the impact of his absence is being felt.
First, Jerami Grant now starts in Coleman’s place, which takes away that spark coach Boeheim could go to on the bench.
Second, the Orange have Baye-Moussa Keita on the bench to provide help in the frontcourt but he is an offensive liability and more of a defensive specialist. If C.J. Fair, Grant or Rakeem Christmas get into foul trouble, the offense takes a major hit as Keita is the only substitute for the forwards who play meaningful minutes.
Tyler Roberson has been used sparingly, but is coming into games earlier, which may be a sign Jim Boeheim is grooming the 6’8” freshman for more minutes down the stretch.
As far as the guards are concerned, Michael Gbinije has performed solidly as a backup for both Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney. Gbinije is not a natural point guard and can be sloppy at times with the ball, but he is still a very good bench player.
The bench is not deep but Syracuse players rarely foul out. In fact, through 22 games a Syracuse player has only fouled out of a game five times. Christmas fouled out twice and Grant, Keita and Roberson each fouled out once.
The 2-3 zone does a good job of keeping players out of foul trouble and with opposing teams shooting an abundance of three-pointers, there are even fewer fouls. As long as they continue to stay out of foul trouble, the bench should not be a concern.
After Syracuse’s thrilling overtime win over No. 17 Duke on Feb. 1, the rematch at Cameron Indoor on Feb. 22 is probably the most anticipated game remaining on the schedule in NCAA basketball.
Before Syracuse fans get ahead of themselves, they should remember Pitt, as it always does, played a heck of a game against the Orange back on Jan. 18 and will be looking for revenge on Feb. 12.
The Panthers just dropped two games in a row at home to Duke and Virginia, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be amped up for Syracuse.
As far as Duke is concerned, of course the Orange can beat the Blue Devils, but they could also lose. Duke proved to Syracuse at the Carrier Dome it was no easy win and if a few calls went a different way, the Orange would be looking for revenge instead of the Dukies.
To win, Syracuse must find a way to guard the perimeter better and use its size to its advantage. Syracuse would also do well to take the ball directly at Jabari Parker early in the game and try to get him into foul trouble, as Duke cannot overcome its lack of size without him in the lineup.
Barring any unforeseen losses by the Blue Devils, Duke should be the favorite in this game, so Orange fans should at least be ready to accept a tough evening on Tobacco Road. Duke is far from unbeatable, but losses like the one in Syracuse cannot sit well with the Blue Devils, which makes the game an absolute treat for the fans.
Before the Duke-Syracuse game, Jabari Parker, Duke’s leading scorer and rebounder, probably had a slight edge over C.J. Fair, who was the preseason selection for the award and is Syracuse’s leading scorer.
After Fair’s dominating 28-point performance and Parker’s un-Parker-like effort in a head-to-head appearance, the edge has to go back to Fair.
The game at Duke may end up being the deciding factor in battle but as of right now, the award is Fair’s to lose.
There’s no way to tell, but it will be interesting to see how Ennis holds up.
The freshman point guard logs over 34 minutes per game and is showing no signs of slowing down but only time will tell if he can keep up this pace for the remaining nine games, and the postseason, which will be more games than he is accustomed to in one season.
Ennis only played in one game in which he yielded more than two turnovers. An increase in that total could be an indication of fatigue, but there’s nothing pointing that way, to date.
He has the makeup of an old-school point guard, which may help in his wear-resistance. He never gets sped up and controls the tempo of the game whenever he chooses. Luckily for Syracuse, Ennis seems to conserve his energy for the closing minutes of his games, which could also be why he seems so immune to fatigue.