The Morning After: Tough Turtles

Syracuse forward C.J. Fair
C.J. Fair had a good night in his Maryland homecoming (Mitch Stringer, USA TODAY Sports)

It’s good to be back on the winning track.

After dropping two in a row and dropping a few spots in the polls, the Syracuse Orange bounced back with a 57-55 win over the Maryland Terrapins on Monday night.

But, man, they made it interesting.

After being up double digits in the second half, the Orange had to hang on for dear life as the Terps stormed back.  Luckily for Jim Boeheim’s squad, a late attempt at a game-winning three by Seth Allen was off the mark and Syracuse escaped College Park with a W.

The Injury Bug

Syracuse center Baye Moussa Keita continued his comeback from a sprained knee against the Terps.  Sporting a knee brace, he collected eight rebounds and two blocks in 30 minutes of action.  One might wonder why Keita logged to many minutes.  Well, Jerami Grant played only 13 minutes, none in the second half.

Grant was hampered by the same back ailment he suffered during the Duke game.  Despite powering through against the Devils to the tune of 17 points and eight boards against the Blue Devils, either Grant felt he couldn’t go any longer on Monday or Jim Boeheim felt he wasn’t needed, because Grant sat about 2/3 through the first half and never returned to the court.

Grant’s absence, to me, is the biggest reason why the Orange struggled to close this game out.  As has been the case often, the Orange struggled to score in this one.  They had only four made field goals in the last eight minutes of play.  So, despite Maryland turning the ball over 18 times, Syracuse had to eek out the game in the final seconds.  True, the Orange were able to capitalize on the Terrapins’ mistakes with a ton of points off turnovers, but the half court offense was stagnant and Grant’s absence is a huge part of that.

Trevor Cooney might be the second leading scorer statistically, but Jerami Grant is Syracuse’s second scorer (more on that distinction below).  Without Grant on the court, C.J. Fair had to try to do it all and, while he made some tough shots and played a great game (17 points, 9 rebs), he’s can’t do it by himself.  He needs help and Jerami Grant has been the one giving it during ACC play.

A Third Banana

Grant’s extended absence really highlighted the source of Syracuse’s recent struggles.  Syracuse is a phenomenal defensive team.  They can stop just about anybody.  The problem is, for all their efficiency, they’re shaky at times on offense.   C.J. is typically rock solid.  He has very few bad games.  Jerami is basically where C.J. was as a sophomore; a solid contributor who gets his doing the dirty work.

After that, though, it kind of drops off.  That’s not to say that the rest of the team isn’t talented, just that they’re inconsistent.  Trevor Cooney has been slumping lately and his production throughout the season has been up and down, as you might expect from a three-point specialist.  Rakeem Christmas has been much improved of late, but still inconsistent on offense.  The same can be said for Michael Gbinije.  And super-frosh Tyler Ennis, as good as he’s been, has yet to learn how to read the overall flow of the game to know when he’s going to have to score and when he’s going to be able to hang back and distribute.

If the Orange are going to fulfill their potential as a Final Four contender, they need to find a reliable third scorer.  In my mind, that has to be Tyler Ennis.  He’s got the talent (four 20-point games this season), he just needs to be more assertive more often.  I love the fact that Ennis is a classic, pass-first point.  But a lead guard isn’t just a passer, he’s a playmaker.  Sometimes the play that needs to be made is a bucket.  Look at the margins of Syracuse’s recent outings; three at Pitt, one against NC State, three against BC, six at Duke (though it was really like a 3-4 point game, minus the technical free throws).  Ennis averages 12 PPG on the dot.  If he can up that to 15 or 16 PPG, those few extra points turn most of those Ls into Ws, and the squeakers aren’t quite as tight.  Not only that, but being more of a threat to score will open up passing lanes to get the ball to catch and finish guys like Grant and Christmas.  I know it’s a lot to ask of a freshman point, no matter how good he is, but that’s what it’s going to take if Syracuse is going to do on a deep tourney run.

 A Win for the Future

The game against Maryland was important going forward for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, it stopped the losing streak.  Good teams can lose a game or two in a row, but don’t let those slides turn into three, four, five game skids.  The Orange have a tough road to finish out the regular season, so it was critical to right the ship as soon as possible.

Second, it gave Syracuse some experience with different lineups.  Between the Keita and Grant injuries, Gbinije has played more minutes at small forward than I think anyone would have anticipated.  He still needs practice on the wing of the zone, but better he get it now than in the NCAA Tournament.  The same goes for Ennis’ freshman classmate Tyler Roberson.  It seems clear to me that Jim B trusts the young forward, or else he wouldn’t see the court at all.  Boeheim would rather roll only six deep than put out a player he didn’t trust to get the job done.  Still, the more burn Roberson can get now, the better off the team will be when those few minutes he plays will be critical.

And, third, Syracuse still controls its own destiny in terms of winning the ACC regular season title.  The Virginia Cavaliers sit atop the current ACC standings with a record of 14-1.  With an upcoming dance with UVA on Saturday, if the Orange win out (knock on wood), they’ll claim the ACC regular season crown in their first year out.  Both Syracuse and UVA will have at least two conference losses and SU will hold the tie breakers for both better overall record and head-to-head match up.

Now, I recognize that the regular season title doesn’t mean to most people.  Most people care about the conference tourney champs.  But, to me, it’s the other way around.  For a team like Syracuse that’s going to be a high NCAA seed regardless of what happens in the ACC tourney, the regular season title is more significant.  It means they played the best ball in the league over time, not just over four or five days.  That holds significance.  Any team in the top 2/3 of the ACC can get hot and win five straight.  It takes a really good team to navigate the ACC gauntlet to come out with the most wins.  More than that, it shows that Syracuse is here to stay at the top of the ACC.  A win in the ACC tourney could be construed as a flash in the pan, a one-and-done like Florida State and Miami.  Grinding out a regular season title would stake Syracuse’s clam to its spot at the top of the ACC and that, above all, should be the legacy of this season.

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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