While No. 8 Syracuse was immediately considered to be a contender for the ACC title in their first season in the league, with the coaches picking them to finish second behind Duke in the preseason poll, there were still some questions for Jim Boeheim’s team to answer. How would they account for the loss of both Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche on the perimeter? And which player (or players) would add scoring punch to a rotation that also lost three-point marksman James Southerland?
Over the course of three days in Maui the Orange made significant strides when it comes to answering those questions, and the end result was a 74-67 win over No. 18 Baylor and the program’s third Maui Invitational title.
C.J. Fair, as expected when the season began, led the way with 24 points (14 in the second half) on 10-for-17 shooting and earned MVP honors as a result. Over the three-day event Fair was the player the Orange leaned on for big plays in crunch time, averaging 18.0 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in wins over Minnesota, Cal and Baylor. Fair led four Syracuse players in double figures on Wednesday, with sophomore Jerami Grant having the look of a player capable of breaking out in 2013-14.
Grant scored 19 points off the bench against Baylor, following up on a very good outing against Cal on Tuesday night (19 points, 7-for-11 FG). With an increased number of opportunities to score Grant’s taken full advantage and he’s been efficient in doing so, as per kenpom.com he entered Wednesday with an offensive rating of 121.7 (5th in the ACC) and a turnover rate of 5.4% (4th in the ACC). It’s one thing for a bench player to be productive but it’s another for that player to be both productive and efficient, and thus far that would be a good way in which to describe Grant.
As for the guards, while freshman Tyler Ennis may not have scored as much as he did against Cal (28 points), but he took great care of the basketball to the tune of nine assists without a single turnover. Over the three games in Maui the freshman from Ontario committed just two turnovers, pushing his total for the entire season to eight. Ennis makes sound decisions with the basketball and he rarely, if ever, gets rushed while running the show. Add in a sidekick in Trevor Cooney who averaged 16.3 points per game in Maui, and Syracuse looks to be in good shape on the perimeter when it comes to accounting for those heavy personnel losses.
“Being young guards and we are playing against three really good teams and three different teams, every night was different for us,” said Cooney after the title game. “Every team was different, and all three were great challenges for us. And I thought we stepped it up every night and brought it. I thought that was great for us.”
Syracuse arrived in Maui with a lot of talent but also a couple questions that needed answering against stiffer competition. And the trophy that will accompany the Orange on the trip back to central New York is evidence that Jim Boeheim’s team is well on its way to being the team many expected them to be prior to the start of the season.