Syracuse still unbeaten, but far from perfect

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Just like last season, Syracuse started the New Year with an unblemished record. (I hesitate to say “perfect” because so many of the Orange’s games have been less than perfect, particularly in early November when the offense needed some serious kinks worked out. Still, unbeaten’s unbeaten. Moving on.)

But, unlike last season when Syracuse dropped its first game in January – at home to Pitt – it handled No. 15 Notre Dame on Saturday thanks to an impressive second half when its defense made life miserable for the Irish in a 70-58 win. (No easy task given N.D. can fill it up.)

No Wes Johnson. No Andy Rautins. No Arinze Onuaku. No problem. That defense remains the same.

“We brought the defense in from last year,” Kris Joseph told the Syracuse Post-Standard. “Defense is what we want to do to win games. Defense was the key for us. That’s what it’s been. That’s what it’s always going to be around here.”

Through 15 games, No. 5 Syracuse has sported some impressive defense indeed. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey lauded their aggressiveness in the passing lanes and their ability to force turnovers and turn those turnovers into points. So the defense is good.

But offense has been the real story. ‘Cuse is scoring 1.18 points per possession, ninth best in D-I and almost exactly the same as last year’s 30-5 squad.  And that’s with shooting an average 33.8 percent beyond the arc (it made nearly 40 percent last season) and a shoddy 66.3 from the line. The difference? Far fewer turnovers.

So is this team as good as last year? Point guard Scoop Jardine won’t tough that.

“I can’t,” he told the Post-Standard. “I can’t. I can’t. I won’t. I won’t compare. It doesn’t matter. I was on a great team last season and we’re trying to be a great team this season.”

OK then. I’ll say it. They’re not as good as last year. The defense is close, but the offense is bound to slack off. Three-point shooting with be an issue (still no replacement for Rautins’ range) and they don’t have anyone on Johnson’s level who can create matchup issues. Rick Jackson’s a complementary player, not someone to rely on for post points. Dion Waiters is there yet and Kris Joseph is inconsistent.

The Orange will still win games, but it’ll be a little uglier and little more workmanlike as Jardine and Brandon Triche continue to wring points out of the offense. As Big East play continues, those points are going to be harder and harder to come by.

But this isn’t a team that’s going to play outside its comfort zone. That’ll be worth watching as the season wears on.

“I don’t know how good we are,” Scoop declared, “but we’re good. We’ve still got some improving to do, so I don’t know. But what I do know is that we have a lot of good young guys and we’re working hard. And we’re all listening to what the coach wants us to do and that’s the bottom line.”

Want more? I’m also on Twitter @BeyndArcMMiller.

Syracuse upsets No. 18 UConn as Tyler Lydon stars again

St Bonaventure Syracuse Basketball
AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth
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Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney combined for 34 points as Syracuse overcame an early 10-point deficit to knock off No. 18 UConn in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis, 79-76.

The talking point at the end of this game is probably going to end up being UConn’s decision not to foul Syracuse with 36 seconds left on the clock. Trevor Cooney dribbled out the clock and, with six seconds left, missed a 35-foot prayer, the offensive rebound getting corralled by Tyler Roberson, sealing the win.

But that’s not the real story here.

That would be Tyler Lydon, who suddenly looks like he may end up being the difference maker for this Syracuse team.

If you don’t know the name, I don’t blame you. Lydon was a low-end top 100 recruit that had been committed to the Orange for a long time. He’s not exactly a game-changing prospect, but he’s a perfect fit for Syracuse. At 6-foot-9, Lydon has the length to be a shot-blocker in the middle of the 2-3 zone — he entered Thursday averaging 3.3 blocks — but his biggest skill is his ability to shoot the ball from beyond the arc. When he plays the middle of that zone, when he is essentially the five for the Orange, they become incredibly difficult to matchup with defensively.

The question is whether or not he can consistently be that guy on the defensive end of the floor. Against UConn, Lydon had 16 points and 12 boards. Against Charlotte, he finished with 18 points, eight boards and six blocks. But neither the Huskies nor the 49ers have a big front line that crashes the offensive glass.

Lydon is great at using his length to make shots in the lane difficult, but at (a generous) 205 pounds, he may run into trouble against bigger, stronger front court players.

The perfect test?

Texas A&M, who the Orange will play in the title game on Friday.

USC holds on to beat No. 20 Wichita State

Andy Enfield
Associated Press
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With guards Fred VanVleet and Landry Shamet both sidelined due to injury, No. 20 Wichita State arrived at the Advocare Invitational shorthanded. But even with that being the case the highly successful Shockers represented quite the opportunity for USC, and Thursday afternoon the Trojans took advantage.

Despite turning the ball over 23 times Andy Enfield’s team found a way to win, hanging on to beat the Shockers by the final score of 72-69. Freshman forward Bennie Boatwright, a tough matchup for most teams as a 6-foot-10 stretch forward who can score from the perimeter, shot 5-for-9 from three and scored a team-high (and career-high) 22 points.

The tandem of he and junior Nikola Jovanovic, who added 14 points and 11 rebounds, outplayed the Wichita State front court on a day in which the Shockers needed greater contributions from those players. Add in 15 points and four assists from Jordan McLaughlin, ten points off the bench from Katin Reinhardt and a 12-for-23 afternoon from three, and the Trojans were able to do enough to make up for their high turnover count and Wichita State’s 24 points off of turnovers.

Given the absence of VanVleet and Shamet there’s no reason to panic regarding Wichita State. Ron Baker, who was exhausted by the end of the game due to the heavy load he was asked to shoulder, scored a game-high 25 points and the play of freshman Markis McDuffie was a positive to build on.

McDuffie, who entered Thursday’s game without a made field goal in his first two appearances as a Shocker, shot 5-for-9 from the field and contributed 14 points and three rebounds off the bench. With their current perimeter rotation being what it is McDuffie will have opportunities to contribute, and the Shockers will need him to take advantage as they await the returns of VanVleet and Shamet (and the addition of Conner Frankamp).

Doing so will not only help Wichita State in the short term but in the long-term as well, thus giving Gregg Marshall another option to call upon on his bench.

Thursday’s outcome, even with the desire to see more from Anton Grady (eight points, seven rebounds), says more about USC at this point in time than Wichita State. Enfield’s first two seasons at the helm were about amassing the talent needed to compete in the Pac-12 while also gaining valuable (and at times painful) experience. In year three the Trojans hope to take a step forward within the conference, and wins like this one provide evidence of the program’s growth.