The reinstatement of James Southerland after missing six games because of an academic-suspension obviously had an immediate impact on the Syracuse basketball team and could bode well for the Orange men's long-term goals.
After a shaky first half, the sharp-shooting, 6-foot-9, senior forward found his groove and finished with 13 points as SU defeated St. John's 77-58 in the Carrier Dome Sunday. The Orange outscored the Johnnies, 50-37, with Southerland on the floor and just 27-21 without him. Syracuse posted a 4-2 record without him and is 16-1 with him. So, his ability to hit shots from beyond the arc and his length in the back of the 2-3 zone, not to mention his experience, definitely makes this a much-better basketball team.
With Southerland back, guards Michael Williams-Carter and Brandon Triche seemed to force the action less and play more under control. This may have been the best game of the season for this dynamic backcourt duo as they combined for 33 points, 15 assists and seven steals.
There doesn't appear to be any great teams in college basketball this year, so I suppose Syracuse is good enough to dream about taking a trip down the road to the Final Four in Atlanta this March and April.
Even Jim Boeheim, who notched 20 victories for an NCAA-record 35th time, says Southerland's return keeps hope alive. And Boeheim usually is the last to address such subjects when Final Four questions are broached in early February.
"James gives us a chance to talk about things like that," the Syracuse coach said afterward. "I think we're now back on that list of the top seven or eight teams. But we had him when we lost to Temple, and they've got eight losses. This year you can be one of the Top 10 teams and still lose in the second round to somebody in that next 10. Easy."
I'm not ready to write that the Orange will be spending early April in Hotlanta. So much depends on matchups at the NCAAs, so to venture a prediction now would be foolhardy.
To me, SU's biggest flaw remains its bigs, who, too often, come up short. Rakeem Christmas continues to run hot and cold and is constantly in foul trouble. His line vs. St. John's - 18 minutes, two points, one rebound and four fouls - seems like an every other game occurrence. Fortunately, Baye Moussa Keita was able to pick up the slack, contributing eight points and four boards in place of Christmas. I can't help but think SU's center problem will be center stage come NCAA tournament time.
I continue to appreciate the consistent excellence of C.J. Fair. What a luxury it is for Boeheim to pencil Fair into the lineup each game and know that the junior forward routinely can be counted on for 17-point, 9-rebound performances like Sunday's. He's such a pleasure to watch, and he keeps getting better. Fair worked hard in the offseason to improve his mid-range and 3-point jumpers and it's help expand his game. He's hitting 40 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, and he continues to have a nose for rebounds.
So, the Orange men became a markedly better basketball team Sunday with the return of Southerland. They'll need him as they hit the stretch run, starting with road games at Connecticut and Seton Hall this week.
Whether Southerland will be the piece they'll need to go deep in the tournament remains to be seen.