No. 8 Syracuse provides answers to key questions in Maui Invitational title run

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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 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.

POSTERIZED: Wyoming’s Josh Adams takes flight

Josh Adams
Associated Press
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Not only is Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams the lone returning starter from a team that won the Mountain West tournament last season, but he’s also one of college basketball’s best dunkers. And if anyone may have forgotten about his jumping ability, Adams put it on display Saturday during the Cowboys’ win over Montana State.

After splitting two Montana State players at the top of the key Adams attacked the basket, dunking with two hands over a late-arriving help-side defender. If you’re going to rotate over, have to do it quicker than that.

Video credit: Wyoming Athletics

Defensive progress will determine No. 4 Iowa State’s ceiling

Monte Morris
Associated Press
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Even with the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, No. 4 Iowa State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams. Given their skills on that end of the floor many teams find it tough to go score for score with the Cyclones, and that’s what happened to Illinois in Iowa State’s 84-73 win in the Emerald Coast Classic title game.

Georges Niang scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with Monté Morris adding 20, nine rebounds and six assists and Abdel Nader 18 points as the Cyclones moved to 5-0 on the season. The three-pointers weren’t falling in the second half, as Iowa State shot 0-f0r-12, but they shot 19-for-24 inside of the arc to pull away from a team that lost big man Mike Thorne Jr. late in the first half to a left knee injury.

Illinois’ loss of size in the paint opened things up offensively for Iowa State, and the Cyclones took advantage. But where this group grabbed control of the game was on the defensive end of the floor, and that will be the key for a team with Big 12 and national title aspirations.

Nader took on the responsibility of defending Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (20 points) in the second half and did a solid job of keeping the junior wing in check, with that serving as the spark to a 12-2 run that put the game away. There’s no denying that the Cyclones can put points on the board; most of the talent from last season is back and the productivity on that end of the floor hasn’t changed as a result. Niang’s one of the nation’s best forwards, and both Morris (who now ranks among the country’s best point guards) and Nader have taken significant strides in their respective games.

Iowa State will add Deonte Burton in December, giving them another option to call upon. Front court depth is a bit of a concern, as Iowa State can ill afford to lose a Niang or Jameel McKay, but there’s enough on the roster to compensate for that and force mismatches in other areas.

But the biggest question for this group is how effective they can become at stringing together stops. Illinois certainly had its moments in both halves Saturday night, but Iowa State also showed during the game’s decisive stretch that they can step up defensively. The key now is to do so consistently, and if that occurs the Cyclones can be a threat both within the Big 12 and nationally.