Syracuse Frosh Tyler Lydon Is a Small-Town Goofball with a Big-Time Game

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Syracuse Frosh Tyler Lydon Is a Small-Town Goofball with a Big-Time Game
Rich Barnes/Getty Images

The mustache—a term we are using very loosely—has a name: Rico. Because why not?

Rico is wispy, inelegant, hardly a finished product. But it has potential. For goodness’ sake, it has its own Twitter account and everything. Despite Rico’s humble beginnings, it could someday be great. The signs are right there above Tyler Lydon’s upper lip.

“It’s not a very good one,” the Syracuse freshman forward allowed after the Orange’s NCAA tournament second-round victory over Middle Tennessee State. “On a scale of one to 10, I’d rate it probably like a six-and-a-half. It’s got a lot of work to do.”

Understand this: Rico is no 6.5. A two, maybe, depending on the lighting. But the 6'8" Lydon, who named his 'stache—why Rico, he has utterly no idea—is more than a two and, as a pair of vanquished tourney opponents surely would agree, more than a six-and-a-half.

As the born-again Orange roll into Chicago for a Sweet 16 date with Gonzaga, the 19-year-old Lydon is their X-factor. When he plays well, he is as important a piece of the puzzle as they have.

Yet he is, at 210 pounds, wispy. At times a tad inelegant, too. A finished product, certainly not. The potential, though—both in this year’s tournament and beyond—is undeniable.

 

Tyler Being Tyler

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Tyler Lydon shot his brother’s turkey. But we should clarify, because that sounds pretty terrible.

Fourteen-year-old Lydon was on a turkey hunt with his dad, Tim, and older brother, Zach, near the family’s home in Elizaville, New York, a tiny Hudson Valley hamlet with a post office, a deli and fewer than 2,000 residents. Tyler had taken a couple of gobblers during previous hunts, but Zach was still aiming for his first.

“I set up in the middle to do the calling, and the turkeys started coming through the orchard,” Tim said. “I said, ‘If they go right, Zach gets the shot. If left, Tyler.’ Well, our turkey was, of course, angling right. Just as it stepped from behind a tree—bang—Tyler shot him.

“Typical Tyler. He just kind of shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Sorry.’ Zach was pretty pissed, but I doubt he was surprised.”

Guilt flashed across Lydon’s face when he was reminded of this story last weekend in St. Louis. Then came a laugh and, ultimately, an expression of momentous victory (“Hey, it happens,” he said). The truth is, Lydon didn’t really intend to shoot Zach’s turkey. He was taken by the moment, got a little carried away. Let’s just say his heart was in the right place, even if his effort was a tad over the top.

All the Lydons have stories of Tyler being Tyler, both off the court and on it. Tyler routinely terrified his mom, Susan, herself a former college player, by launching himself over opponents for rebounds, getting his legs knocked out from under him and landing back-first, head-first, face-first with spectacular thuds. Once, in eighth grade, he landed on his back and remained motionless—in hindsight, definitely longer than he needed to—to Susan’s horror. Finally he got up, looked at Mom, shrugged his shoulders and kept playing.

Zach—an inch taller, a few pounds heavier, one school year ahead and a sophomore forward at Division III SUNY Cortland—understands the basic differences between himself and the brother who has always been mistaken for his twin. Each can stretch the defense with his jump shot. Each can score inside, though Zach’s post moves are more technically refined. Each has a giant love for the game. But Tyler has freakish athleticism and a reckless abandon one probably can only be born with.

“That’s why he’s where he is and I’m not—I’m finesse; he’s jumping over people and dunking on them,” Zach said. “Other than that, we’re a lot alike, except he’s more of a goofball. He’s a nut job, a whacked-out kid. But he’s my best friend.”

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Lydon’s Syracuse teammates love the enthusiasm and energy he brings in his 30.3 minutes per game—a starter’s workload, all off the bench—though occasionally it can be painful to experience firsthand.

Twice against Middle Tennessee State, Lydon soared in traffic for a gutsy rebound only to land on a teammate and send him toppling to the floor where Lydon crashed down on him again. Junior Tyler Roberson was still rubbing the top of his head as he sat at his locker after the win.

“Yeah, man, that hurt,” Roberson said. “But, I mean, that’s just Tyler. That’s just Tyler going all-out.”

Lydon has had a highly productive debut season, averaging 10.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and a team-high 1.6 blocks. He also made more than 40 percent of his 109 three-point attempts. He has found a higher gear as a scorer since the start of February, averaging 13.7 points—he led the Orange with 20- and 21-point nights in one three-game stretch—and shooting 38-of-52 (73.0 percent) on two-point attempts. But his veteran teammates have been sold on him from the jump.

“The sky’s the limit for him,” said center DaJuan Coleman, one of two seniors in the young Orange’s rotation and the starter who surrenders more playing time than anyone to Lydon. “He can do everything on the court. He’s still a little thin, but he still holds his own on the inside.”

The 268-pound Coleman rag-dolled Lydon in early-summer pickup games, but Lydon got his attention by fighting back—hard.

“He brings it every day,” Coleman said. “I mean, he brings it every day. He has gotten so much better this season. He’s going to be scary.”

Lydon was part of a 2015 recruiting class that was widely ranked among the top 10 nationally. In light of the scholarship reductions the program will face through the 2019-20 season due to NCAA sanctions, the 2015 class—headlined by guard Malachi Richardson—is of heightened importance. Longtime coach Jim Boeheim has announced he will retire in 2018, and Richardson and Lydon hope to send Boeheim out with a bang.

Syracuse will be expected to be one of the most improved teams in the country next season.

“I think the team is definitely going to be in good hands,” Lydon said. “The future is bright.”

A key to it all is the growing friendship between Richardson and Lydon. They are an unlikely pair. Richardson, the team’s second-leading scorer and a city kid from Trenton, New Jersey, wins the image game; with a shock-jock’s hairstyle—“Cut the sides down, fade it a little bit, lift the top up,” he describes it—he plays with unending flair.

After leading all scorers with 21 points in a first-round victory over Dayton, Richardson had a quiet second-round game, but he mugged for the TNT cameras anyway after delivering a late alley-oop pass to Roberson.

Richardson is a Lydon fan, even if Lydon is somewhat…different.

“Tyler is crazy,” he said. “He’s a crazy country kid. He goes hunting. He has animals in his house on the walls—I don’t get it. But he is an excellent player and a great friend. Tyler is a cool dude.”

 

Unquestioned Drive

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Lydon made a beautiful ball fake on a Middle Tennessee defender at the three-point line, took a hard dribble with his right hand, launched himself toward the basket—his arm straight and pointing skyward, the ball impossibly high above the rim—and threw down a massive dunk. Except for one thing: The ball hit the back of the rim and ricocheted from here to Elizaville.

It was the start of what became a rather amazing sequence. A teammate rebounded the ball, which soon found Lydon in the same starting spot just right of the top of the circle. So he made the same fake, his defender again taking the bait, and went in for another resounding finish. Only this time, Lydon drew a flagrant foul before he could throw down. And then he stepped to the line and missed both free throws.

A whole lot of wow, but nothing to show for it.

But Lydon made up for it, starting on the Orange's ensuing possession, when he ran the baseline and threw down a giant alley-oop. He finished with his second straight 14-point game and took advantage of mismatches with the Blue Raiders’ smaller defenders, scoring multiple buckets in the post.

This pleased Boeheim, who has at times been critical of Lydon for settling for threes rather than doing old-school work for harder-earned twos. Boeheim has chosen not to pay Lydon many public compliments—a motivational tactic typical of the 71-year-old coach—but he was willing to Captain Obvious Lydon’s season-high six blocked shots.

“He blocked six shots,” Boeheim said. “That’s a lot.”

Lydon low-keyed the accomplishment.

“I just try to go after every ball and go as hard as I can on every possession,” he said.

Lydon has been doing that for as long as he has played the game, but everything kicked up a notch when he found the City Rocks AAU club in Albany, New York. His introduction to the big time wouldn’t have happened had Lydon, then a high school sophomore, not begged his parents to drive him an hour each way—and hang around for two-hour practices—with an AAU club that was bigger-time, if not the real big time. It’s all relative, right?

It put Lydon on the basketball map. After reaching a state title game playing alongside Zach, who was in his final season at Pine Plains High School—typical graduating class, about 50—Lydon transferred to New Hampton Prep in New Hampshire, where he would get more exposure.

Meanwhile, he flourished with the City Rocks, whose alumni include Andray Blatche, Jimmer Fredette and Syracuse’s Coleman. He made the USA Basketball under-18 squad that won the 2014 FIBA Americas championship.

“He was driven to go as far as he could,” Tim Lydon said. “Basketball was what he wanted to do. Any opportunity to go up to Albany, he wanted to go. He really made all this happen.”

Of course, he didn’t do it all by himself; Lydon’s parents made a grand commitment to support his dream. They have Zach and two boys younger than Tyler, one of whom is playing at Pine Plains.

Behind every future star is an army of supporters. Many of them—parents and siblings, uncles and aunts, grandparents, cousins and friends—gathered at the Lydons’ home to root on Syracuse as it advanced, unexpectedly, to the Sweet 16. Tim and Susan will be in Chicago for the Orange’s game against Gonzaga...and maybe beyond.

Tyler tweeted a message before the tournament got underway: “And you know that if I had just one wish it’d be that you didn’t have to miss this. You should be here.”

It was meant for a lot of people. Mom and Dad. Zach and the younger Lydon boys. To Syracuse fans everywhere? Maybe.

Lydon punctuated the tweet with a haloed smiley face. Kind of perfect, right? Lydon the player is imperfect—wispy, inelegant, an unfinished product—but continuing to flourish. Tyler being Tyler, anything is possible from here.

 

Steve Greenberg has covered college sports for nearly 20 years, namely for the Sporting News and the Chicago Sun-Times. Follow him on Twitter @SLGreenberg. Recruit ratings provided by 247Sports.

 

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