Maybe it’s the team’s first three-game winning streak in seven weeks, maybe it’s the fact that Jim Boeheim’s press conferences are already in postseason form, but the Orange have put me in an optimistic mood. Over the last three games, Syracuse has mostly escaped the long droughts that plagued it during its leaner times and all three guards have stepped up at different points to complement Rick Jackson’s steady play. To boot, this hasn’t been Syracuse fattening up on the DePauls, South Floridas and Providences of the conference, but a steady group of competitive teams with plenty on the line. While the games have been close, they’re displaying more of a collective effort in an extended stretch than we’ve seen since the team feasted on its non-conference cupcakes, and the remaining schedule looks to be advantageous to the ‘Cuse as they charge toward the postseason.
Say what you want about Scoop Jardine, but his better attributes have shone through his mistakes over the last four games. In that time, he’s shooting 47.8% from the floor, compared to his season average of 41.4%. His shot selection has slowly improved – he still drives into the lane at will, but the paths have been clearer. In addition, he’s hitting threes at a 44% rate in the same period. While I don’t expect him to morph into a Johnny Flynn or Gerry McNamara, his upward trending reminds me of Eric Devendorf’s junior year before he tore his ACL. In his first two seasons, Devendorf was cringeworthy handling the ball. From high dribbles to lazy passes, it was tough to feel confident with the ball in his hands. Josh Wright’s troubles and adjusting to life after GMac miscast Devendorf as a point guard, but when Flynn arrived to take over that spot and bumped him over to shooting guard, the bad habits seemed to go away. Now, Jardine is in no risk of getting moved off the point guard spot, and four games does not a season make, but he may be in the midst of a slight but important transformation.
Jardine’s primary backcourt mate, Brandon Triche, has also started to embrace a role as a leader. Though he took a step back against Villanova, he’s developed a sense of awareness as to how important he his on this team, when many players have openly voiced frustrations at various points over their roles in Boeheim’s system. For Triche to continue to take the steps towards a reliable scorer, he must continue to have an eye towards the tin. His shooting lines have left a lot to be desired recently, but from the free throw line, all that’s desired is that he gets there more often. The sophomore has missed just one free throw this month in going 23-24 from the stripe. If he calls for the ball more often, I’m confident that good things will happen – we saw what happened at the Prudential Center, and how his hot shooting brought the team back from the dead against Louisville.
The sample size on Dion Waiters had been limited, but as with his cousin, the Villanova game could be a sign of things to come. One convenience Jim Boeheim has is that he doesn’t need Waiters to be a 15 PPG scorer right now, but in stretches against Pitt and in Monday’s game, he’s shown that he is capable of bringing an intense scoring dynamic to a team in need of a spark in the backcourt, as long as he stays out of his own way, and I think he’s learned that lesson. As with Triche, Waiter’s assertiveness can only help the team at the line, and against the Wildcats, he proved that he can make them when the pressure’s on.
Of course, CJ Fair is the spark in the frontcourt. With the Orange being off until Saturday, Fair’s left ankle has a chance to heal. He really wasn’t the same after turning it, though he’s to be commended for fighting through the injury when SU is as thin as it is in the back of the zone. He’s been steady all season long, and has thrived in increased playing time. Until the ankle sprain, teams haven’t quite been able to match up with him. He can get into the lane quickly as well as rebound, but at 6’8, smaller defenders won’t give his patented floater much trouble when he returns. On the flip side, he can beat bigger defenders into the lane with his quickness. He’s starting to emerge as a matchup nightmare when healthy, which bodes very well for his future at Syracuse.
That role is one that we expected Kris Joseph to embrace back in November. Just when you think he’s put it together with a pair of good games, he either puts up a stinker or is becomes so passive in the team’s offense that he neutralizes himself. Maybe he’s still recovering from the head injury sustained against Cincinnati and is hesitant to drive because of it, but his aggressiveness has dropped off considerably over the past month. If it wasn’t for his improved three-point stroke (37% on the season), there wouldn’t be much to make him worth accounting for on offense, and he’s been chewed out repeatedly for defensive lapses. While he isn’t a liability, his play could be the difference if the Orange is to survive past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
And I’m running out of ways to describe Rick Jackson’s consistency. Not only does he finish easily on post feeds, but he also gets a lion’s share of rebounds and blocks shots left and right, all the while staying out of foul trouble. Following a dud against Georgetown at the Carrier Dome, he’s definitely eager to make things right on Saturday against a frontcourt that he should have his way with.
The team is improving at the right time, but there are still holes. Baye Keita is having trouble adjusting to the rigors of conference play. While Fab Melo played acceptably on Monday in his limited stint, it remains unlikely that he’ll be a difference-maker down the stretch. Scoop Jardine can turn back into a pumpkin and go 3-10 from the floor at the drop of a hot. Still, this team is playing better.
There aren’t many in Boeheim’s rotation who aren’t a) logging major minutes or b) playing through a nagging injury (some are going through both). Fortunately, the schedulers in Providence did the Orange a couple favors by awarding them a lengthy five-day layoff between the Villanova game and the roadie at Georgetown, and an entire week off before DePaul visits the Dome for Senior Day to cap off the regular season. While some of SU’s physical hardships won’t end soon, you can see the clouds starting to break just in time for March.