Ok, so maybe they weren’t over-rated, after all.
After watching the Syracuse Orange men struggle mightily against the soft underbelly of their schedule, who could blame us for thinking they would be over matched when they played seventh-ranked Michigan State in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night.
Heck, just last week, Tom Izzo’s Spartans had taken top-ranked Duke to the limit and their other loss was to sixth-ranked UConn. Meanwhile, Jim Boeheim’s 8-0 club had barely escaped upsets by basketball dregs Detroit and William & Mary in the Carrier Dome, no less.
Perhaps it was the thrill of playing in the Big Apple at basketball’s most famous arena. Or maybe it was the sight of Orange legend Derrick Coleman, resplendent in blue suit and orange tie, enthusiastically exhorting on his alma mater beneath one of the baskets. Or maybe it just took this very young basketball team longer than expected to gel.
Whatever the reason, the switch finally clicked on, and potential finally was realized as Syracuse whipped the Spartans, 72-58, in front of a sold out crowd of 19,391 and a national television audience.
SU’s Garden Party was sparked once again by its most consistent performer – senior forward Rick Jackson, who had a monster game with 17 points and 16 rebounds.
“He totally kicked our butt all night,’’ said Izzo, high praise from a coach who has taken his team to the six Final Fours in 12 years.
Mr. Double-Double was aided by teammate Scoop Jardine, who had 19 points. And the SU veterans received a nice spark from a trio of freshman – C.J. Fair, Dion Waiters and Baye Moussa Keita – who combined for 13 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks while providing energy off the bench.
As the season progresses, I think we are going to see a lot more of this threesome, especially if sophomore guard Brandon Triche and freshman center Fab Melo continue to struggle.
The other constant, besides Jackson, this season has been the play of the Orange defense. SU’s aggressive 2-3 zone confounded the Spartans, who shot just 39 percent from the field while being held 20 points below their per-game average coming in. Michigan State could not get the ball inside effectively and wound up settling for shots beyond the 3-point arc, connecting on just seven.
“We turned into a pretty boy jump-shooting team instead of a blue-collar fist-fighting team,’’ an exasperated Izzo told reporters.
Historically one of the more dominating rebounding teams, the Spartans were beaten 38-30 on the boards.
After the game, a beaming Jardine joked to reporters: “We surprised y’all tonight. We did, didn’t we?”
Well, Scoop, yes you did.
Besides improving their record to 9-0, this victory showed why many of us believed the Orange men would be very good this season. But one game does not a season make. (Unless, of course, that one game is the NCAA finals.)
Boeheim called it “a good win for us,” but he wasn’t about to claim this was a statement victory.
“I don’t think we’re playing as well as we can play,’’ he told reporters. “I don’t think we’ve played really well offensively yet. I think we can get much better. I think we can be good. But we’re not there yet.”
No, they’re not. SU shot just 2-for-11 from 3-point land last night, continuing a bothersome trend. It didn’t matter against Michigan State’s man defense, which the Orange men were able to take apart for an assortment of dunks and layups. But there is going to come a time when SU’s inconsistent perimeter game is going to bite them. They still lack that Andy Rautins threat from the outside, someone who can consistently drain the 3 and open things up underneath.
And although Jardine has had some huge games running the show, he’s also had a few clunkers. But the bigger backcourt concern is Triche. Although the sophomore guard had four assists and hit 7-of-8 free throws against the Spartans, including some key ones down the stretch, he still seems uncomfortable with his role, converting just 1-of-7 from the field. The more he struggles, the more we’re going to see Waiters and Fair, which may not be a bad thing, judging from the moxie they’ve shown so far.
At some point, Kris Joseph needs to step up more, too. The junior forward from Montreal had 14 points, and like Triche was solid from the line, converting 8-of-9 free throws. But he made just 3-of-10 from the field and was 0-for-2 beyond the arc.
While Melo might be the biggest disappointment in the early going (he had no points, no rebounds and four fouls in 13 minutes), the most pleasant surprise has been Keita. He had some huge blocks that thwarted Michigan State baskets last night. He’s aggressive defensively, without being foul-prone, and he’s a strong rebounder.
So, yes, as Boeheim says, they are still a work in progress.
But the eighth-ranked Orange men no longer should be considered overrated.
Just ask Tom Izzo.
Author and columnist Scott Pitoniak has followed Syracuse basketball since the mid-1960s and has written about it since the mid-1970s for various newspapers and magazines. Scott currently is working on a biography about SU coaching legend Jim Boeheim to be published next year. You can read more of Scott’s stuff at www.scottpitoniak.com He will be signing copies of his various books at Borders in Victor, Friday, Dec. 10 from 6-8 p.m. and at the Webster Barnes & Noble, Saturday, Dec. 11 from 2-4 p.m.