After 25 games, No.1 Syracuse remains undefeated and in control of the Atlantic Coast Conference in its freshman season as a member.
Syracuse (25-0, 12-0 ACC) has just six games left on its schedule before the ACC tournament begins and will be tested on the road with four of those six games being away from the Carrier Dome.
Whether on the road or at home, the Orange have managed to handle their opponents, albeit a little closer than coach Jim Boeheim would like, especially in the last week.
The Orange needed a desperation three from Tyler Ennis as time expired to overcome the Pittsburgh Panthers, 58-56, and barely came away with a win against North Carolina State after forcing a few turnovers and getting a goaltending call in their favor in the waning seconds to eke out a 56-55 victory.
Luckily for Syracuse, the team has shown an ability to stay calm under pressure. As the clock ticks, the Orange’s defense becomes tighter and tighter and they’ve shown an incredible ability to finish games.
Having a perfect record, however, does not mean the Orange are perfect. At the moment, they are only playing six men, as DaJuan Coleman has been lost for the season due to a knee injury and Baye Keita is nursing a sprained knee. The Orange offense has been efficient, but tends to disappear at times, which forces the team to dig itself out of holes.
Syracuse hasn’t encountered a deficit it couldn’t overcome but road games against Duke and Virginia loom where the basketball gods may not be so charitable.
We do have a clear picture of the makeup of the Orange. They play stifling defense, capitalize on mistakes and have enough skill players that off nights by different players are made up for by strong nights from others.
We will now take a deeper look at the Orange and how their play will look going forward.
In the 2012-13 season, Syracuse only scored 70 points per game but made a great run to the Final Four on the heels of a Herculean defensive effort in which teams only averaged 48.8 points per game in five games.
The only team to score more than 60 was Michigan, which claimed a 61-56 victory and a spot in the championship game.
This season, the Orange are averaging an identical 70 points per game but are only allowing 58.2 points per game, which is good for No. 7 in the nation in that category.
The Syracuse defense has been so good that only three teams have managed to score more than 67 points against the Orange the entire season, and they’re getting better.
Since Dec. 28, only Duke has been able to score more than 60 against the impressive Orange defense.
James Southerland’s graduation created a gap in the Syracuse three-point game.
Southerland was nearly a 40-percent shooter from distance (.398) and his 13.3 points per game in 29.5 minutes were third-highest on the team.
In contrast, Trevor Cooney, the redshirt freshman, averaged 3.4 points and played only 11.2 minutes per game. And while he was touted as a sharpshooter, his .267 percentage from three left much to be desired.
This season, Cooney flew out of the gate with a 7-of-8 three-point performance against Cornell for 27 points and was awarded the season’s first ACC Player of the Week award. He scores more than Southerland with 13.6 points per game, which is second on the team. He shoots at a higher percentage than Southerland, with a .429 three-point percentage, and with 77 three-pointers made is only seven three-pointers away from tying Southerland’s total from last season, which includes the Big East and NCAA tournaments.
Cooney has proven he’s the man for the job and with two years of eligibility left, should only get better.
Syracuse started the season as a team that went eight players deep and would bring in bench players when keeping the starters in became inappropriate.
The loss of DaJuan Coleman, who played only 13 games, turned the roster seven-deep, and once conference play started, the bench would barely get a sniff, with the exceptions of Michael Gbinije and Baye Keita.
Keita sprained his knee on Feb. 9 against Clemson and hasn’t played since, which has caused Jim Boeheim to go with a six-man roster. A bench player other than Gbinije may see a minute or two, but Boeheim seems ready to go with a smaller lineup.
There is good news, however. ESPN’s Andy Katz reported that Jim Boeheim told him that he expects Keita to play against Boston College this Wednesday.
C.J. Fair and Baye Keita will be lost to graduation, but freshman Tyler Ennis and sophomore Jerami Grant may heed the calling of the NBA.
As of Feb. 11 NBADraft.net has Grant going to Charlotte with the No. 10 pick and Tyler Ennis going to Orlando with the No. 13 pick, should either declare for the draft.
Neither has expressed they will leave school, but Ennis is probably the more likely player to stay at least one more year to fill out his body and work on his athleticism (i.e. quickness, shot creation, etc.).
How Syracuse fares in the tournament may help the decision-making process. A national title may see a mass exodus, whereas an early exit may rally the troops.
There's no doubt both will be drafted in the first round. When that happens is the only question.
Whether it's in overtime against Duke, coming from behind twice against Pittsburgh or rallying to beat North Carolina State, Syracuse has become adept at staying calm and imposing its will at the end of its games.
Sometimes it comes from clutch shooting, sometimes it comes from the free-throw line, but more often than anything, the Orange will go into shutdown mode on defense and create timely turnovers. It's surely frustrating to Coach Boeheim that his players put themselves in positions to have to come from behind, but the situations they've dug themselves out of have been invaluable in terms of in-game education.
As close as the Orange have played in many of their games, when healthy, they have every reason to believe they can beat any team in the country. The Orange survived their biggest test of the season with the Duke win, but this Saturday, Feb. 22, Syracuse travels to Cameron Indoor Stadium for an up-close-and-personal meeting with the Cameron Crazies.
The way the Orange offense has played lately, they may get blown out of the building. But if the game is close at the end, you can be sure that it will be the Orange that gain the competitive edge, even in Cameron.