Wednesday night, Syracuse and Georgetown added another memorable chapter to their storied rivalry, but memorable for all the wrong reasons if you’re an Orange fan. Rick Jackson battled serious foul trouble for the first time all season, and an odd thing happened in that while he was on the bench, saddled with four fouls early in the second half, the Orange took the lead and actually stuffed some cushion into it. Confidence was high – the Orange had an edge in the post even with Jackson riding the pine, and with SU’s younger group faring so well, it was difficult to imagine the Orange giving up the lead.
Jackson re-entered the game with 5:37 left, and the Orange backcourt rarely looked for him. On top of his absence, the Hoyas took advantage of a handful of Syracuse miscues. Perhaps most damaging was Scoop Jardine’s turnover with three minutes remaining. After zipping a bullet past Baye Moussa Keita, rather than sealing off Austin Freeman in transition, he lightly backpedaled, allowing for an easy pass and finish for the Hoyas, which broke a 55-55 tie. The gaffe perpetuated a 15-3 run by Georgetown over the last 6:35 to send Syracuse home, winless at the Dome in three tries since its January 15 win over Cincinnati.
After a road game against Louisville, the Orange will return home on February 14, which means that the Orange will have gone almost a month without a win at the Loud House. A team whose ceiling involves playing beyond the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament can’t have that on their resume and expect to get very far, but that’s a post for another day.
Back to the game, aiding in the collapse was the disappearance of Kris Joseph. Joseph was among several Orange players whose style of play was affected by the game’s tight officiating. He was whistled for three charges, and while it’s easy to go ahead and blame the refs, great players show the ability to make adjustments to the officiating, just as they show the ability to find weaknesses when defenses adjust their gameplans to give them more attention. That’s not what we saw out of SU’s junior who was expected to make the leap this season. Bad breaks happen – The officiating may have been suspect, as many players pointed out after the game, but at a point, the team has to recognize how the game is being called, figure out a way to win despite whatever the referees are taking away, and, most importantly, execute.
After falling behind in the waning minutes, the Orange rushed to get shots off instead of looking for them with plenty of time remaining. While Georgetown’s slow pace on offense can make a six-point lead look like a 12-point lead, I was hoping for Syracuse to not panic like they have before, especially playing in front of a crowd of over 25,000 fans. That may have been the most disappointing part of it all. Whether or not they publicly acknowledge it, the team has done a poor job handling on-court adversity, with the exception of the early hole dug against Pittsburgh. When facing challenges late in games, though, they get tunnel vision and lose sight of what makes half-court sets work (ball movement).
That’s too bad, because the late meltdown overshadows some very good play from CJ Fair, Keita and Dion Waiters. Fair, as he’s done for most of the season when healthy, converted some very tough shots inside. The Hoyas really discounted his ability to contribute on both ends, and I think that just as rookies in baseball can be successful early in their careers partially because there’s not much scouting information available, there may be a similar case on the Orange sidelines. Defenses will make adjustments as they learn Fair’s tendencies, and he has to then adjust in response. It’s going to be a lot of fun watching him as he continues to develop into a top-flight player.
Keita had to step up big, especially in the second stanza with Jackson dealing with foul trouble, and did his usual Baye thing, fighting for rebounds and loose balls, and getting back in transition faster than any Syracuse big man in my eight-year history of following the Orange. Jim Boeheim admitted after the game that Keita got tired and that’s where he started to commit fouls and fatigue led to decreased intensity. For those readers who are still racking their brains over why Boeheim hasn’t pulled Melo out of the lineup in favor of Keita, you might have some of your answer, though one could make the argument that Melo tires out even faster. He didn’t have the game he had against UConn, but without him, Syracuse would’ve really been up a creek.
Waiters took a bit of a step back offensively after parlaying his big spurt against the Huskies into another nice performance against South Florida, but his defense continues to improve. He’s averaging more than a steal per game in just 16.6 minutes per game in conference play. On offense, the production wasn’t there, but none of his shots looked forced, with the obvious exception of a desperation three with 30 seconds left in the game.
Overall, though, the game was a major disappointment and another lost opportunity. Looking at how the team lost focus late in the game, it’s damning to think about how the Orange will fare in an elimination game setting. With Louisville, a nut Jim Boeheim hasn’t cracked in a handful of years, and a Big Monday game coming up against West Virginia, things don’t get any easier.