Dion Dominant In The Early Going
At the end of last season, many were unsure about what Dion Waiters would have in store. In many games, he showed the ability to score and take over, but would go absent in others, and his brief stay in Jim Boeheim’s doghouse gave pause as to just how much the head coach could trust him. Early in the offseason, the rumors of Waiters’ exodus didn’t do anything to clear up the scenario. But two games into the season, Waiters is sending a clear message to his coach, teammates and the doubters (or as I understand the kids are calling them, “haters”…) that he’s the best of the four guards in Syracuse’s deep rotation.
In the young season which comprises 41 minutes of playing time in the Orange’s two big wins, Waiters has shot 60% from the floor, including a 37.5% mark from deep. He’s still taken a few bad shots, which might be the craziest part of his overall output. Some of Waiters’ efficient production can be directly attributed to his defense, as two of his career-high five steals last night immediately led to points on the other end. Some fans are calling for Waiters to start over Brandon Triche, which I think is premature at best, because Triche has done nothing to make me question his ability (his second half was quiet, but he had a couple of terrific stretches to get the Orange out of neutral early), but a few more performances like Tuesday’s and it will become awfully tough for Waiters to sit for long, even if the backcourt is deep. With Scoop Jardine struggling and Michael Carter-Williams still getting his legs under him, there’s a chance we’ll see Triche back at point guard in longer stretches just to keep him and Waiters on the court at the same time. That’s to be determined, but in two games, Waiters has emerged as the clear-cut top guard by a significant margin.
Almost as impressive as Waiters was James Southerland, who had a magnificent night, posting a Joseph-esque line of 15 points, six rebounds and four assists with no turnovers in 19 minutes. He was in such a groove that late in the first half, he dunked over his own teammate. Southerland’s success was a microcosm of SU’s cakewalk, as he got clean look after clean look thanks partially to the mismatch the Jasper’s presented. More importantly, Monday was without a doubt James Southerland’s best night ever in a Syracuse uniform, excluding his fluky exhibition exploits.
Elsewhere, the back line was amazing once again. Manhattan went 13 minutes in the first half without making a shot inside the three-point arc and had a similar cold streak that went over eight minutes in the second half, which only put more pressure on Manhattan’s guards by heavily reducing the margin for error. Whenever Syracuse plays man defense, it’s worth noting as interesting (unless it’s way too late in a three-point barrage, as is usually the case), but this team has enough athleticism and quickness to be play it capably throughout the season as long as it gets enough repetition in these early games. The zone isn’t going anywhere, but I’m glad the idea of playing man-to-man with personnel who can pull it off is at least being explored.
On a player-by-player basis, Fab Melo is really getting his bearings on defense, but as we saw around the middle of the game, is still sensitive and new enough to the game that opponents could trigger recklessness by contesting his protection of rebounds and playing generally handsy defense. On offense, SU could have looked for Melo a little more often, but on at least one occasion, a poor entry pass led him away from the basket and resulted in a turnover. That came right around the point where Waiters and Southerland started to erupt, so you can’t blame them too much for running with what worked.
Rakeem Christmas fouled out, and unfortunately, it won’t be the last time he does so. Considering his defensive specialty, it’s just something we’ll have to live with as he develops the mental aspects. I won’t have that big a problem with his fouling if it keeps the other team off the scoreboard, but on Tuesday, Manhattan went 6-8 from the line on attempts that were caused by Christmas’ fouls.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the long stretch without a field goal to begin the second half. There wasn’t any flow to the game whatsoever at that point, and while some of it was due to Syracuse clanging its way to an 0-8 clankfest, Manhattan’s overly aggressive style was also a factor. I left it toward the bottom here because ultimately, it wasn’t that relevant. Between the start of the half and Melo’s tip-in with 13 minutes remaining in the game, the Orange actually built its lead from 26 to 30. During that time, Syracuse wasn’t starving for good looks at the basket – they just weren’t going in.
Lastly, it was announced after the game that Trevor Cooney will indeed redshirt this season. I’m very much in favor of this move and think it’s a no-brainer for the reasons I’ve described in the past. As good as he may already be, he’s buried on the depth chart and while he may bring that firepower from the three-point line, it looks like the Orange will be able to patch together an acceptable perimeter attack without needing him. I’m not sure if the Orange will have four players make threes every game as they did Monday night, but I think they’ll get the job done with a collective effort.
As I referenced yesterday, I’m anxious to see how much the depth and even distribution of PT helps the Orange get through tonight’s game against Albany. It may be an unusual compacting of games into a tight schedule, but the all-around execution and depth that has allowed Jim Boeheim to be so flexible in the early going should serve the team well in the long run.