Halfway through its maiden voyage in the ACC, the Syracuse basketball team finds itself undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country.
There have been dominating performances (Indiana, Villanova), nail-biters (St. Francis, Pittsburgh, Miami twice) and downright classics (Duke). And despite losing a starter to a season-ending injury, the Orange have kept rolling along.
Tyler Ennis has been a revelation at the point, Jerami Grant and C.J. Fair have caused fits for opposing forwards and Trevor Cooney has provided timely unconscious shooting performances. Add it all up and the undefeated, top-ranked team in the country has turned in a grade-A performance.
But how do individual players on this team grade out? What about the offense and defense as a whole? In the upcoming slides we will break down player grades by position group as well as the overall performance of the offense and defense.
Tyler Ennis: You can probably guess where this will go. Ennis is turning into a star before our eyes, and his clutch play in the waning minutes of games has been stellar. ESPN pointed out that heading into the Duke game, Ennis had 50 points in 70 minutes in the last five minutes of games. He also had 14 points and zero turnovers and shot 52.4 percent.
In the next two games (against Duke and Notre Dame), nothing changed. Ennis had eight points, three assists and no turnovers in the last five minutes of regulation and overtime against Duke. And against Notre Dame, Ennis had two points, two assists and no turnovers in the last five. Factor in that he's averaging 5.7 assists and only 1.5 turnovers per game and this is an easy grade to assign.
Trevor Cooney: Cooney started out the season white-hot from downtown, cooled off as ACC play started and then found his touch again against Duke and Notre Dame. In fact, if it weren't for Cooney's career night against the Fighting Irish, the Orange would be a lame duck at the top of the national rankings.
But Cooney has provided more than just three-point shooting. He's second only to Ennis in steals in the conference at 2.2 a night. And despite the slump, Cooney's still fourth in the conference in three-point percentage (.436) and first in three-pointers per game (3.1). The early downturn hurts him but only a little bit.
C.J. Fair: As a senior and the reigning leading scorer, Fair has been just about the player Syracuse fans expected him to be.
Fair again paces the team in scoring at 16.7 points. He's only failed to score double-digit points in two games this year, and he has come up in the biggest spots more often than not. He hit big shots against St. John's and Baylor to preserve victories and went off for a career-high 28 against Duke.
But there are a couple areas that keep Fair from acing the test.
His turnovers are down to 2.6 after averaging over three earlier in the year, but he's still too careless with the ball every now and then. And despite shooting a healthy 70 percent from the free-throw line, he has missed a few big spots that you expect the leader of a team to make (the two after Jamie Dixon's technical against Pitt and two late against Duke spring to mind).
Jerami Grant: He's the human highlight reel. Grant has been a mainstay in the SportsCenter Top 10 plays this year with his ridiculous dunks and blocks.
But Grant does more than provide highlight-reel material. He has recorded five double-doubles on the season and leads the team with seven rebounds a game. His overall free-throw percentage leaves a little to be desired (.684), but he has usually made the ones when his team needed them (10-of-10 against Duke, 12-of-13 in Maui).
Grant has also proved to be a versatile defender on the back line of the 2-3 zone. His length and athleticism allow him to cover from the three-point line all the way to the rim.
We weren't too kind to Rakeem Christmas the last time we handed out grades for the Orange.
But this time, Christmas definitely has a report card worthy of putting on the refrigerator.
Recently, Christmas has more often than not had a tangible impact on games. Christmas has erased 20 shots in nine ACC games for an average of 2.2 blocks a game. He's also averaging 5.6 rebounds per game in conference play and has pulled down some big boards in key spots, such as late against Pitt and a 10-rebound outing against Duke.
Speaking of Duke, Christmas is probably the biggest reason Syracuse was able to withstand Duke's three-point onslaught and escape with a victory. Christmas didn't stuff the stat sheet like Fair and Grant did, but Syracuse needed every bit of his seven points, 10 rebounds and six blocks.
Not only did he reject Rodney Hood on the do-or-die play, but Christmas also drew key fouls on Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson that relegated them to spectator status.
Syracuse fans are surely hoping this version of Christmas is here to stay.
Baye Moussa Keita: With DaJuan Coleman on the shelf, Keita and Christmas are splitting duty at center for the Orange. Keita doesn't present much of a drop-off from Christmas defensively, through Christmas is a more athletic player.
But Keita is essentially a nonfactor on offense. He still struggles to catch the ball in the paint and doesn't provide much on offense besides the occasional putback. But what he lacks in offensive skill, he makes up for with intensity and senior leadership on defense.
Michael Gbinije: Gbinije has been designated as the backup guard for the Orange. He spells both Ennis and Cooney and has shown he is a reliable enough ball-handler when he needs to run the point.
He doesn't get asked to do much offensively, but Gbinije has the ability to knock down open jumpers when he gets them. And at 6'7", he gives the zone some added length at the top to help shut down the perimeter.
Tyler Roberson: Roberson has only gotten into 14 games this year, and excluding blowouts, it was only for a few minutes at a time. Roberson is yet another long, athletic defender Jim Boeheim can plug into the zone. He only really gets into games to give Grant or Fair a breather, but he will at least have some experience should he be needed due to foul trouble.
Excluding the Duke game where Syracuse scored 91 points, the Orange are averaging only 62.3 points in ACC play.
Despite Ennis' playmaking abilities, the Orange offense sometimes struggles to find good shots. Pressure defense can slow Syracuse down, and if Cooney is struggling, there are few other options from outside. That allows opposing teams to back the middle to shut down Fair and Grant in the paint.
Despite all of that, the Orange have scored enough points to win every game, and Ennis has shown he can make the plays that need to be made late in games.
A Jim Boeheim-coached team is going to focus on defense first, and this team is no different.
The Orange are ninth in the country in scoring defense, giving up 59.3 points a night. They also come in at 11th nationally in steals per game with 8.9.
And even if there are some defensive lapses throughout games, this team locks down in the final minutes. In games against St. Francis, Pittsburgh, Duke, Baylor and Miami, the Orange defense got the stops it needed to secure victories.
The Orange are susceptible to giving up offensive rebounds, but it has yet to be a serious concern as the Orange outrebound their opponents by about six boards a game.
And while the Orange, like any zone team, are prone to give up some three-point looks, they do a decent enough job shutting down the perimeter. Grant and Fair can both get out to challenge shooters, and Ennis and Cooney both know how to play at the top. Even the centers have shown they can get out to challenge corner shooters. As a team, Syracuse allows its opponents to make 33.8 percent of their threes.
Syracuse rode its defense to the Final Four last year, and the D is good enough to get them back again.