Syracuse is not complete yet.
Its been said a thousand times, but they lack consistent perimeter shooting. Kris Joseph is still competing with the mindset and aggressiveness of a complimentary player. That means that the talented, but at times erratic, Scoop Jardine (he averages 12.5 ppg and 6.9 apg, but he’s been held scoreless the same number of times he’s broken 20 points — twice) is becoming the focal point offensively. Put it all together, and you get a team that has their share of trouble on that end of the floor.
Tonight it didn’t matter.
With the number of possessions that Syracuse looked lost offensively, they still managed to hand Michigan State easily their worst loss of the season, a 72-58 defeat in the nightcap of the Jimmy V Classic.
And the Spartans other two losses came at the hands of Duke and UConn, two other top ten teams.
You see, Syracuse is just as good on the defensive end as they were last season. Losing Wesley Johnson and Arinze Onuaku hasn’t hurt the length of their back line. Kris Joseph is plenty long and athletic, as is CJ Fair. In the middle, Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita actually provide more length and size (well, size vertically) than Onuaku. And while Andy Rautins proved to be a terrific defender by the time he left Syracuse, Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche, and Dion Waiters are all strong, athletic guards with some size that have played very well at the top of the zone.
Draymond Green is the perfect player to put at the high post if you want to break a 2-3 zone. He’s a wide target, capable of scoring from the foul line area or kicking the ball out to an open teammate on the perimeter if the defense collapses. And aside from two poor possessions to start the game when Jardine failed to drop down and prevent the entry pass, Syracuse completely took that option away from the Spartans.
Defensively isn’t the only place where Syracuse’s size has shown through.
Rick Jackson was an absolute monster around the rim tonight. He finished with 17 points and 16 rebounds (six offensive), and while he’s not the kind of player that you can just throw the ball into on the block and rely on his post moves, he’s turned into a real junkyard dog around the rim. He’s got shades of DeJuan Blair in his game, averaging almost 13 rpg, more than 4.5 of which come on the offensive end.
Melo hasn’t been the Fab Melo we all expected this season, Keita has exceeded expectations for his freshman season while Fair has looked really good in his limited minutes as well.
To be fair, this Michigan State team that was dominated inside by the Orange is not the typical Michigan State team. Their front line is not as physical or as aggressive as in year’s past, and that lack of physicality is what has cost them early this season.
But that lack of physicality had nothing to do with how flummoxed the Spartans were against the Syracuse zone.
Korie Lucious and Kalin Lucas struggled to find lanes to penetrate. When they were able to break down the defense, Syracuse had help defenders there. When the ball was kicked out, the Orange were able to get to shooters, which is part of the reason that seemingly every three the Spartans took was from NBA range.
The question now becomes how good the Orange can end up being.
Obviously, this is a team that has yet to reach their potential. There were many possessions on the offensive end of the floor where the Orange looked out of sync tonight. When they weren’t scoring in transition and off of turnovers, the Orange had their own problems dealing with the Spartan’s defense.
But there is time for this group to grow. They shouldn’t be challenged until a New Year’s Day date with Notre Dame in the Carrier Dome, and they don’t really get into the meat of the Big East schedule until mid-January.
If Joseph can find a groove as a go-to scoring option — which will mean attacking the rim more and settling for fewer jumpers — and guys like Jardine, Triche, and Waiters can become reliable shooting threats, the Orange are one of the best teams in the country.
When the shots are falling, they’ll be very difficult to beat.
And if the shots start falling on a consistent basis, this is a group that can realistically contend for the Big East crown.