The No. 7 Syracuse Orange put a little air in its flat tire with a Sunday afternoon dismantling of the Florida State Seminoles, 74-58.
Syracuse (27-4, 14-4 ACC) used its superior athleticism to outrebound Florida State (18-12, 9-9) by a 43-24 margin and close out the regular season with a road win in an attempt to make losing four of its last five games a distant memory.
The Orange will enter the ACC tournament as a No. 2 seed, which means they will receive a double bye and play their next game on Friday, Mar. 14, in Greensboro, N.C.
After looking like a lock for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with a 25-0 start, the then-No. 1 Orange faltered with losses to Boston College and Duke, squeaked by Maryland and then fell to Virginia and Georgia Tech.
In what could be called an offensive breakthrough for Syracuse, the Orange scored over 70 points for only the second time since Jan. 7 and are hopeful that this game indicates a righting of the ship.
Three weeks ago, the Florida State game looked like a blip on the radar on the way to an Orange ACC title, but then Syracuse lost its scoring touch and a little of its magic. In victories against the likes of Duke, Pittsburgh and North Carolina State, the Orange kept their cool under pressure and pulled away with close and sometimes miraculous wins.
Over the past two weeks, the Orange used the final minutes of their games to erase the good work of the previous three months of games.
That luck changed at the 11:27 mark of the second half on Sunday. Florida State brought the Seminoles to within one point off an Okaro White jumper and made the score 47-46. That sinking feeling of the Orange letting another inferior opponent stay close began to creep in, but two straight three-pointers by Trevor Cooney put Syracuse up seven to keep the game at a safe distance.
This begs the question: Which is the real Syracuse? Is it the team that handed Villanova its first loss on Dec. 28? Is it the team that beat Duke in an instant classic in overtime at the Carrier Dome on Feb. 1?
Or is it the team that crumbled when Virginia stepped on the gas just over a week ago?
There is no easy answer, but the facts say the Orange are both.
With a healthy Jerami Grant, a Trevor Cooney who is making his threes and a team that plays inspired defense, Syracuse can play with any team in the country.
But when Cooney’s shots aren’t falling and Tyler Ennis makes ill-advised passes and the defense is out of position, among other things, Syracuse can be had teams that are not even on the same level.
This is the problem with Syracuse: It too often plays to the level of its opponent. The Orange expect to win every time and allow teams to dictate pace and slow down the game. This allows opponents to play the percentages with Syracuse and helps hot-shooting teams stay close.
The Orange are the same team that they were when they started the season 25-0 and they’re the same team that lost to Boston College. Some nights they have it and some nights they don’t.
Syracuse needs success in a handful of areas of their game to be victorious. They need their perimeter shooting to fall to keep defenders honest and keep the lanes free of traffic. They have to rebound well. They have to stay out of foul trouble and, most importantly, they have to remain healthy.
On the other side of the coin, Syracuse has immense talent and also needs a handful of areas of their game to go wrong in order to lose games. Syracuse can survive bad shooting nights because their defense is excellent. They can survive foul trouble even with an inexperienced bench because they have the length and ability to fill holes when need be.
Above all, Syracuse can rely on its hot hand. When Fair gets going, he gets fed the ball. When Cooney and Ennis are hot, they make their impact felt often. And when shots aren’t falling from anyone, Grant can come up with impossible putbacks.
The point is that every one of those four players can and has put the team on his shoulders. Syracuse is not a scoring juggernaut, but for the most part, it hasn’t had to be. It has only needed to be opportunistic, which is exactly the ability of the team. None are superstars every night, but each can star when the moment comes.
It would be easy to write that we will find out what type of team Syracuse is when it starts the ACC tournament, but that would be lazy. The Orange will play a 7 p.m. game against North Carolina State, Miami or Virginia Tech on Mar. 14. Whether the Orange win or lose, we already know everything we need to know.
Back in November, I predicted this team of youth and talent either had the ability to get right back to the Final Four or the ability to get bounced around and end up in the NIT.
A very unsatisfying but optimistic look at the season, I know, but that is exactly the Orange of 2014.
Unsatisfying, yet optimistic.