The benching of Fab Melo may have been the first signal, but by the time Louisville nearly ran the Orange out of the gym with a lethal 32-6 run, a win on Saturday just wasn’t meant to be. Credit Syracuse for climbing back into it and making this one a game, but the lack of focus on defense for an entire 40 minutes continues to plague the team. Having beaten the Orange seven straight times, Rick Pitino has the first-edition, dog-eared-to-tatters version of how to beat the Syracuse zone, and he put it on display late in the first half. During their big run, Syracuse lost Louisville’s primary three-point weapons, Kyle Kuric and Preston Knowles, along the perimeter; they got through the paint for easy baskets, and sliced up the Orange in the high post. SU did an admirable job adjusting while they answered in the second half, but the hole was simply too big.
With Kris Joseph struggling mightily and Louisville’s defense putting the drapes on Rick Jackson the whole game, Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine stepped up. Triche made four threes in the second half on his way to 21 points, a personal career best in conference play. The early knock on this team was the lack of a go-to scorer in big moments. As Syracuse fans, we’ve been spoiled by Gerry McNamara, Wes Johnson and Andy Rautins. While we hoped Kris Joseph would run with that torch this year, he hasn’t. Perhaps Triche can develop into that kind of player, but I’d rather see him blossom as a facilitator (though perhaps he can do both).
Jardine made his usual handful of mistakes, but otherwise played well. If the Orange had a true point guard to facilitate the offense while posing a scoring threat, I don’t think Jardine would make as many errors as he has this season. Followers of the team (myself included) can get in the habit of magnifying Jardine’s decision-making – who didn’t see a few rushed three-pointers coming after he made his first two? – but the criticism also reflects how important he is to the team’s success or failure, and it puts even more pressure on Scoop when you look at the lack of offense that Keita and Melo bring to the table.
The front court was jumbled a bit when it was reported shortly before the game that Fab Melo would not start after missing practice this week. His absence appears to have been family-related, which could mean a number of things, but until he’s back in the mix, you just have to hope he gets his affairs in order soon so he can get back to focusing on basketball. Reports indicate he practiced on Sunday, so we’ll just have to see what Jim Boeheim meant when he said that “he’s not playing for now” in his postgame press conference.
In the meantime, however, that meant a well-earned start for Baye Moussa Keita, who began with four early rebounds, but contributed marginally in 15 minutes. Going from almost certainly redshirting the season to starting shows how hard he’s worked, but it also reflects the trevails in the back of the zone this season.
Those challenges don’t seem apply to CJ Fair, though, at least not right now. As raw as Melo and Keita are, Fair has a basketball IQ as advanced as you’ll find for a freshman, which is especially surprising when you recall how quickly recruiters moved away from him after he had surgery. His court awareness is superb, and until opponents recognize the fight he brings to rebounders and account for him accordingly (Fair’s averaging seven rebounds and two blocks per game in his last three games, plus ten points), he’s going to continue to have these kinds of games.
The biggest takeaway from this game is that opponents are executing against the zone without much of a challenge, particularly from the perimeter. The Orange isn’t flocking to trap when players pick up the dribble like it did last team, it isn’t defending the three, and it lacks the go-to scorer and focus to navigate the Big East schedule with consistency. There are chances to regroup, but it’s suddenly mid-February and the Orange is looking at missing out on a first-round bye in the conference tournament.