After losing four out of five games, the Syracuse basketball team ended the regular season on a high note.
The Orange (27-4, 14-4 ACC) secured the second seed in the ACC tournament with a 74-58 win at Florida State on Sunday.
Integral to the Orange's win was Jerami Grant, who played 35 minutes, dropped 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting and grabbed a team-high eight rebounds. Grant helped the Orange pummel the Seminoles, who have one of the bigger front lines in the nation, on the boards. Syracuse out-rebounded Florida State 43-24.
With Grant seemingly back healthy from an ailing back, the Orange again looked like the Orange that started the season 25-0 and rose to a No. 1 ranking.
Grant originally tweaked his back in Durham against Duke, and he missed the second halves of the games against Maryland and Virginia as well as the entire Georgia Tech contest. The Orange lost to Tech and Virginia and beat Maryland by two after leading by double digits with about five minutes to go.
Against the 'Noles, Grant looked in midseason form. He challenged the bigger defenders inside and displayed the freakish athleticism he had been missing. He even added to his already extensive highlight reel with a follow-up dunk that he basically stole from the opponent in midair. Assistant coach Adrian Autry broke down the play and how Grant impacts games:
So yeah, the Orange are thrilled to have Grant back in the fold. Rakeem Christmas echoed that sentiment, per Donna Ditota of Syracuse.com.
"He's out there flying around and everybody else gets excited, too," Christmas said. "We're just happy to have him back."
Grant's presence can be felt on both ends of the floor. First and foremost, he is the team's leading rebounder. Against Virginia, Syracuse was out-rebounded by 10. A lot of that had to do with Virginia clearing more defensive boards because the Orange were missing shots. But Grant has the most offensive rebounds on the team and could have given Syracuse some easy second-chance opportunities.
Grant is also a rangy defender who can use his length and athleticism to bother players on the perimeter. Michael Gbinije was playing in Grant's stead, but he doesn't have the wingspan or quickness that Grant possesses.
The difference was clear when Virginia scored 48 second-half points and shot 50 percent from the field in the game. Georgia Tech also fared well against a Grant-less 2-3 zone and made 47.1 percent of its shot attempts.
Perhaps most importantly, Grant gives the Orange that third scoring option they had been desperately searching for in his absence. Trevor Cooney has been in a slump for about the entire ACC season, so C.J. Fair and Tyler Ennis had been shouldering the scoring load with Grant out.
That all came to a head on senior day when Georgia Tech came to town. The Orange lost, 67-62, with Fair and Ennis combining for 46 points and 42 of the team's 64 shots. Cooney was 3-of-12 from the field and 1-of-8 from deep. Having Grant available likely would have given the Orange the scoring boost they needed.
Fair told Ditota that Syracuse is "a very different team" when Grant is healthy. "Teams respect him," Fair said. "Defenses have to keep an eye on him and that opens it up for other guys to make plays."
Sunday in Tallahassee, that was immediately apparent. Christmas put in 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting against the 'Noles. With more attention being paid to Grant, Christmas was left alone multiple times in the paint for easy finishes. Christmas had been a ghost in the five games since he broke out against N.C. State. If Grant helps get him more involved, it just pushes the Orange to another level.
Grant told Ditota he "felt good" to be playing again. He said he doubted he'd get back to 100 percent before the season is over. But he said he wanted to get back because "this is the biggest part of the season."
How right he is. Per Ditota, Jim Boeheim said Grant is "key to what we do." With him, Syracuse can beat any team in the country. Without him and without Cooney making shots, the Orange have shown they are vulnerable.
People will look at how the Orange stumbled to the finish line and write them off for the postseason. But if Syracuse, with a healthy Grant, has a strong showing in the ACC tournament, the team has what it takes to get back to the Final Four.