With another thrilling victory under their belts, the cardiac kids in Syracuse remain undefeated and No. 1 in the nation.
The Orange (25-0, 12-0 ACC) used some more late-game heroics to pull out a 56-55 win over N.C. State on Saturday night.
Rakeem Christmas continued his recent brilliant play with 14 points, 12 rebounds, seven blocks and the steal that led to C.J. Fair's game-winning layup. Christmas was again superb in Baye Keita's absence and played 35 minutes.
Aside from clinching the game, Fair struggled from the floor and made only five of his 16 shot attempts. The senior played 40 minutes, marking the eighth time this season he has gone the distance.
In fact, Jim Boeheim essentially played only six guys, with the seventh (Tyler Roberson) only hitting the floor for two minutes. Boeheim plugged in Michael Gbinije for 17 minutes to spell a given starter who needed a breather.
According to Donna Ditota of Syracuse.com, Keita practiced with the team Monday and hopes to return to action Wednesday against Boston College. Keita's return will give the Orange some more depth, but the key players rarely sit, and that has to wear on them.
As Ditota points out, Syracuse has three of the top five players (Fair, Jerami Grant, Tyler Ennis) in minutes played in the ACC. Their fatigue is starting to become apparent. Since the Duke game, the Syracuse offense has been struggling. Ennis is shooting 33 percent since the overtime classic. Fair is hitting at 38 percent and Grant is at 40 percent.
Sure, Ken Pomeroy ranks Syracuse eighth in the country in adjusted offense. But that doesn't change the fact Fair air-balled multiple shots against the Wolfpack and couldn't find a rhythm on his patented mid-range jumper. Boeheim addressed Fair's struggles, per Ditota:
I didn't think he had his legs. He couldn't get his legs underneath him on his jump shot. He made five layups. Even his 10-, 12-, 15-footer, the ones that he normally makes — I don't think he made a jump shot. If makes his jump shots, he's fine, he has a good game.
Chances are Fair "didn't have his legs" because he played 39, 39 and 40 minutes in a three-games-in-seven-days stretch. But as Boeheim points out, a gassed Fair is still the team's best option:
And if I thought we could get another guy in there, I would. But I don't think we can. We're going to be a little tired. I'd rather have CJ in there for 40 than have somebody else in there for five who can't do what we need him to do.
That's probably true, but what Syracuse needs Fair to do most is be the go-to guy. In the NCAA tournament, you're going to have to play at your best every other day to advance. If Syracuse makes a deep run, the Orange will certainly be facing a high-level opponent and need to exert plenty of energy to get a win.
Then two days later, another elite team will be waiting.
What's going to happen if, say, Fair goes off like he did against Duke and leads the team to a win? Is he going to have anything left on a short turnaround? He didn't against Notre Dame, where he made only two of his 13 shots.
The silver lining here is Syracuse has several players that can single-handedly carry the team. Trevor Cooney did so against the Irish while the rest of his teammates were spent from the Duke game. Christmas put his guys on his back against N.C. State. And Ennis certainly knows something about winning games.
But if the minutes continue to pile up, problems can arise. Syracuse's defense has been the one constant for this team. But if Fair and Grant get those tired legs, maybe they won't be able to get out on three-point shooters as effectively. Grant's best asset, his athleticism, will get hampered if he gets fatigued.
Tired players also can be more prone to injury, which is the last thing this team needs.
One way Boeheim can alleviate this issue is to give Gbinije more minutes. He can step in for any starter not named Christmas and give quality minutes on both ends. Gbinije is only getting about 13 minutes a night now, and getting more can only help him, especially come tournament time.
Keita can also help keep the forwards from getting overworked. Of course, Keita won't play anything but center, but his availability would allow Christmas to slide over if the need arises. It's not optimal, but if Boeheim was willing to play Grant at center for short bursts, then the Orange can survive with Christmas at forward for a stretch. And good luck to any team trying to get near the rim with both of those guys on the floor.
And it's not even like Boeheim needs to scale back the minutes drastically. There are four mandatory television timeouts each half. With some creative substitutions, Boeheim could steal an extra minute or so of rest for one of his horses by taking them out shortly before an impending media break. That way they can rest before and during the timeout and then reenter the game after the break. Over the course of a month heading into the big dance, that extra rest could add up.
As Herm Edwards will tell you, teams aren't playing to lose. Boeheim is going to keep riding the players that got the Orange to a No. 1 ranking. They give the him the best chance to win. But if a loss or two in the regular season keeps the key players' legs from turning to Jell-O come tournament time, it's a worthwhile tradeoff.