The Morning After: Back in Business

C.J. Fair
C.J. Fair shined in his final regular season game as an Orange.(Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports)

Well, that’s more like it.

After a bit of a hiatus (read: I got lazy), “The Morning After” is back following Syracuse‘s 74-58 win over the Florida State Seminoles to close out the regular season.

Regardless of what you might have heard from ignorant announcers, Syracuse had little at stake in this one.  The Orange had already locked up the #2 seed in the ACC tournament by virtue of Duke‘s win over rival UNC on Saturday night.  Even had Syracuse lost to FSU, the Orange, Devils and Heels would have had identical conference records.  Syracuse had the head-to-head tiebreaker over Carolina and a better overall record than the Dookies.  Hence, Syracuse was the #2 seed no matter (sorry for the non-sequitir, but them repeating that Syracuse would clinch the #2 with a win irked me all afternoon).

So, really this game was nothing more than an opportunity for the Orange to try to get things right heading into the post season.

Grant’s Back

See what I did there?

After sitting out Syracuse’s senior day loss to Georgia Tech, sophomore forward Jerami Grant started the game against the Seminoles.  It didn’t take long for him to remind Orange fans what exactly they were missing with him injured and out.  Syracuse’s first bucket of the game was a dunk by Rakeem Christmas, assisted by Grant.

Jerami finished the game with 16 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists, showing the versatility that makes him such an important piece of this Orange squad.  To me, Grant his this team’s version of 2003 Hakim Warrick; super freak athlete who doesn’t get a ton of stuff run for him but is undeniably critical to Syracuse’s success.  Without Grant, it fell to C.J. Fair and Tyler Ennis to carry the scoring load.  As good as those two are, three scorers are required to reach the kinds of point totals needed to win.

The most encouraging sign from Grant, to me, was the fact that he sat a good portion of the first half and was able to come back out at halftime and be effective.  I was concerned that his back would stiffen up on him after spending a good amount of time on the bench.  The fact that he was able to remain loose is a good sign about his recovery.

Finding Balance

Anyone who’s watched Syracuse over the last three weeks or so can tell you that the primary cause for the Orange’s struggles has been on the offensive end.  The defense has been good for the most part, but you still need to score more points than your opponent to win.  The win over FSU marked the first time Syracuse has scored more than 62 points in a game since their win over Duke on February first.  Scoring in the 50′s and low 60′s just isn’t enough most games and Syracuse has paid the price.

The root of the problem lay with Trevor Cooney‘s extended shooting slump.  This isn’t a Trevor bashing party, just a statement of fact.  Ever since dropping nine threes on Notre Dame, Cooney has been terrible shooting.  He hasn’t been playing poorly overall.  He still plays solid defense.  He’s still a reliable second ball handler.  He just hasn’t been able to throw it in the ocean.  That left Syracuse with only Fair and Grant as consistent scorers.  When Grant went down, Cooney’s slump became an even greater problem.  The Orange needed to find another third scorer to pick up the slack.  Enter Tyler Ennis.

Since Syracuse’s loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Ennis has scored in double figures every game.  True, the Orange are only 2-2 during those four games, but the super-frosh point guard is becoming more assertive in looking for his own buckets.  He’s always had the ability to score, but preferred to look for his teammates first and second, rarely calling his own number.  That’s great, but a point guard is a playmaker, not just a passer.  This Orange squad needs him to score.  He’s the only player outside of Grant and Fair who can put the ball in the bucket on a consistent basis.  With Ennis regularly chipping in 15-20 points a game, it makes whatever scoring comes from guys like Cooney, Christmas and Michael Gbinije into cushioning rather than the difference between a L and a W.  This kind of balance and definition of roles is they key to the consistency the Orange will need going into the post season.

A Springboard to the Post Season

Overall, this game was the best the Orange have played in a long time, probably since the first Duke game.  It was the Syracuse team that won 25 in a row to start the season.  They dominated the offensive glass, resulting in ten more field attempts than the Seminoles.  The Orange snagged nine steals, many of which led to fast break points.  And all of this led to them shooting a decent percentage; 48% from the field and 33% from three.

It’s important to remember that this was done against one of the best defensive teams in the ACC.  Granted it wasn’t Syracuse’s best offensive performance, but it was a phenomenal improvement over how they’ve been over the last five games or so.  The fact that it came over such a good defensive team is significant.  It shows that, despite the recent struggles, the Orange aren’t totally inept.  They’re capable of putting the ball through the hoop.  They’re capable of winning games without Trevor Cooney knocking down a shit-ton of threes.  They seem to have discovered a good balance that should allow them to make noise in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.

And, despite what some might think, I’m not sure that a #1 NCAA tourney seed is out of the question.  Even with this late slide, if the win the ACC tournament, how do you justify knocking them down to the second line?  30-4 (Syracuse’s potential record with they win the ACC) is a damn good record.  Combined with the overall resume, it puts the Orange in a great position to reclaim their spot on the top line.

After all, that’s what it all about, isn’t it?  Getting the best possible spot in the NCAA to help enable a deep run.  Flawed as they might be, this Orange squad is still a Final Four contender.  This win over FSU is a great starting point.  I’m sure all Orange fans hope it propels SU to the six wins that matter the most.

What do you think?  Love it?  Hate it?  Leave your comments below.

Chris Daughtrey is the creator and author of Bleeding Orange.  He is a contributor at Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician and at Atlantic Coast Confidential.  You can connect with him on Twitter @OrangeBlood 44 or search #OrangeBlood.

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