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.”
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