Syracuse Basketball: Are the Orange Still the Best Team in the ACC?

Justin NeumanContributor IIFebruary 24, 2014

Feb 9, 2014; Syracuse, NY, USA; Syracuse Orange guard Tyler Ennis (11) dribbles the ball in front of Clemson Tigers guard Rod Hall (12) during the first half at the Carrier Dome.  Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse basketball team continues to give its fans ulcers.

After following a 25-0 start with back-to-back losses, the Orange (26-2, 13-2 ACC) got back to their winning ways with a 57-55 nail-biter at Maryland. Despite 18 turnovers and a 51-39 deficit with five minutes, 26 seconds to go, the Terrapins were a missed Seth Allen three-pointer away from handing Syracuse its third loss in as many games.

There is no BCS in college basketball, so a two-point win is as good as a 20-point win. But Orange fans would like to see Syracuse put an opponent away and not have to rely on late-game heroics to squeak out a victory. The Terps could barely complete a pass for the first 30 minutes, so watching a double-digit lead evaporate has to be frustrating for the Orange.

But a win is a win, and this was one Syracuse desperately needed. It also sets up an enormous matchup in Virginia on Saturday that could go a long way in deciding the regular-season ACC champion. The Cavaliers are 14-1 in conference play with a game Wednesday against Miami before Syracuse comes to town.

When Syracuse was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country, it was clearly the class of the ACC. But after two losses and a closer-than-necessary win, are the Orange still the best team in the conference?

The short answer is no.

Simply put, Syracuse isn't a good enough offensive team to be considered the best. The Orange seem to have peaked with that 91-point performance in the first Duke game. In the seven games since, Syracuse is averaging just over 58 points a game.

But what really has Orange fans wringing their hands is the fact that Jerami Grant didn't play at all in the second half against Maryland. He sat out after apparently reaggravating a back injury he suffered at Duke.

Matt Park, the radio announcer for the Orange, seems to think Grant should be ready to go by Saturday:

And rest he shall get, as Syracuse doesn't play again until Saturday.

But Grant being anything less than 100 percent could be a huge problem for the Orange. He is one of the main offensive weapons for Syracuse, and the Orange were basically playing two-on-five without him on offense in the second half against the Terps.

After making his first two threes, Trevor Cooney built himself a nice College Park summer home with all of the bricks he threw up. Cooney finished 2-of-10 from long distance and missed a number of open looks. Since scoring 33 against Notre Dame, Cooney has scored a total of 48 points in six games. He is also just 11-of-40 (27.5 percent) from three in that stretch.

Rakeem Christmas has also regressed since his backup, Baye Moussa Keita, returned to the lineup. Christmas has played just 17 and 12 minutes, respectively, in the last two games due to foul trouble and has been a complete non-factor on the offensive end. The big man had been playing the best basketball of his career with Keita out, but now Christmas can't seem to avoid foul issues and gets caught in the air on head-fakes far too often.

The bench platoon of Keita, Michael Gbinije and Tyler Roberson also isn't providing enough of a scoring punch for Syracuse. The three reserves combined for just seven points against Maryland. That followed up a four-point outing against Duke and a goose egg against Boston College.

The lack of bench scoring is putting too much pressure on the starters to score. With Cooney struggling, Grant ailing and Christmas disappearing, that leaves Ennis and Fair to shoulder the load, which they were able to do, just barely, Monday night. But two guys can't carry an offense every night.

Of course, defense is where Syracuse has always hung its hat. Even though scoring has been tough since Syracuse-Duke I, the Orange are only surrendering 56 points a night since then. But they may not even be the best defensive team in the conference.

That distinction is saved for Virginia, who leads the nation in scoring defense and ranks fourth in adjusted defense, according to Ken Pomeroy. The Cavaliers haven't given up 70 points in a conference game. They've held six ACC opponents to 50 points or less. And their only league loss is a four-point defeat at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

So it looks like it will be another rock fight in Charlottesville on Saturday.

At its best, Syracuse is as good as any team in the country. But the Orange haven't been playing anything approaching their best basketball as of late. But lest we forget, last year's Syracuse team lost four of its last five regular-season games, then made a run to the Final Four.

There is still plenty of time left for Syracuse to right the ship. But right now, Virginia, Duke and maybe even North Carolina (winners of nine straight) are playing better than the Orange.

A win at Virginia is the next step toward righting that ship. If Grant gets healthy and Cooney finds his stroke, the Orange will be as tough an out as there is in March.