After a short absence, I’m back with my belly still in slight recovery mode from Thanksgiving. I hope everyone’s holiday was enjoyable. The Orange definitely helped make mine enjoyable, coming back from Atlantic City with two wins.
After another cold shooting performance on Friday in the just-enough win against Michigan, Syracuse persevered through the ridiculous individual shooting performance that they run into every so often. Saturday night, the role of Kyle McAlarney, Kyle Kuric, Mike Marra or any of a host of piping hot shooters one could insert was played by Brian Oliver. Even when the ‘Cuse paid more attention to Oliver and stretched out the zone, his shots still fell. Once he hit the bench with mild foul trouble, the scales tilted back to normalcy.
The back line was terrific in collapsing on drives and altering shots when the Yellow Jackets’ perimeter game finally cooled off. Georgia Tech shot just 42% in the second half (2-13 on threes), while the Orange offense accelerated to a 61% clip thanks to a transition offense that forced Ga. Tech out of their comfort zone, drawing easy baskets and many a trip to the stripe. Saturday night also gave us a hint about where things stand in the rotation, with SU playing a Power Six conference close in a neutral (ok, semi-home…) environment.
Mookie Jones and James Southerland, after being given a handful of chances to state their cases, didn’t sniff the court. The best eight players at this point – or at least the eight players Jim Boeheim is most comfortable with in a close game – appear to be the five starters (more on a couple of them later), plus Dion Waiters, Baye Moussa Keita and CJ Fair from the bench. The three freshmen shared the court for a good chunk of time and their performance was one that inspires confidence in Boeheim calling their numbers, and confidence in those who follow the team that things could be pretty nice for the next few years.
Waiters provided instant offense with both his driving ability as well as his range, scoring nine points in under five minutes in the first half. Keita, after being so overlooked coming into the fold, has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and Fair has displayed a high basketball IQ and is getting it done above the rim. Fair’s 22 minutes were the most he’s played all season. Keita is especially noteworthy because his playing time can be attributed to an interesting combination of circumstances – DaShonte Riley’s surgery and Fab Melo’s struggles.
While we know that Riley won’t be a factor this season, SU fans are hoping that Melo can become one sooner rather than later. Unfortunately for him and fans alike, things haven’t gone nearly as they were foreseen three weeks ago. He’s seen the court for just 26 minutes in his last three games after averaging about 15 in his first three. Early in the first half against Georgia Tech, with SU on defense, a pass zipped across the lane with nary an arm leaving Melo’s side to disrupt it, and Boeheim gave a quick hook. It’s evident that he’s lost, and the Professor has a seat next to him at the ready from which to bestow his infinite wisdom on the young Brazilian. But it won’t come easy
Although I predicted that Melo could struggle in the early going, there signs of improvement in this short span of time have been hard to come by, and that’s what has me slightly concerned. If Melo is still struggling in a month, Rick Jackson has a game where he gets into foul trouble early and the 6’10/250-lb. guys of the conference are phasing out Keita, SU has no reliable option down low. The worst part may be that that’s not all that unrealistic a scenario to imagine.
Lastly, I was very excited by the emergence of Kris Joseph and his confidence. He was outstanding in the second half as SU went on a 20-4 run to extend the lead into double digits. He’s also starting to show some consistency in his jump shot, canning a few treys. In the offseason, his jump shot was a big question mark in his pursuit to become an all-around scoring threat. Now that he’s shown it off, the question now becomes whether he can do it on a consistent basis.