Orange Challenged After Marquette Punches Back, But Hold On
Whew, that Marquette game gave me much more aggravation than I would have liked. The always-reliable Tim Higgins-led crew (of course by “reliable” I mean “particularly worthy of scrutiny”) was in mid-season form, but the good guys did a nice job of adjusting and playing among the challenges the referees presented. As a quick aside, while watching this weekend’s NFL playoff games, I entered into an internal debate between college basketball and pro football over which sport’s officiating system has the greatest impact on games; not just in the scope of a how a single call or two can define a game, but also systemically. I never like to use officiating as a crutch for why a team won or lost, but dissecting their tendencies and deciphering how officials impact their sport has always been of interest to me. I’m weird like that.
I lean towards hoops, but I don’t have anything close to reasonable statistical data to back it up, just the eye test. While football mandates a larger area for the officials to cover, geographically speaking, and though the game may be much longer (sometimes twice as long as the typical basketball games), there are frequent stoppages, and officiating crews only have to work one game a week. Anyone who has ever done wind sprints understands that frequent stoppages aren’t always welcome, but you get the idea. In college basketball, the action is much more relentless, and the system is set up to enable, and probably encourage, the crews to work an excessive number of games within a week. One thing is certain, though: Both governing bodies need to improve their systems to weed out those who are unfit, both physically and cognitively, while encouraging and incentivizing those who are to join the ranks. Back to SU basketball, though.
The Orange avoided the slow start and led the entire game, much thanks to a 19-0 run in the first half. Fab Melo drew charges left and right, Brandon Triche was scorching nets, I found a scratcher ticket in my back pocket during the under-12 timeout and won $500…everything was grand (ok, so one of those isn’t true). I’ve mentioned this in the past, but it bears repeating: What separates great teams from good teams is the ability to go on devastating runs like what we’ve seen Syracuse do against decent competition like NC State, Tulane, Seton Hall and now the Golden Eagles. Sure, the 7-0 spurts and 12-5 sequences help, but it seems like nothing gets an opposing team up against the ropes and making them look at the scoreboard to ask “what just happened?” like a prolonged scoreless drought coupled by a flood of scoring at the other end.
Of course, this was Marquette, a team that has given Syracuse fits on a consistent basis ever since Buzz Williams took over for Tom Crean. The Syracuse defense, among the nation’s best in creating turnovers and blocking shoots, went into a serious funk in the second half, allowing Marquette to put up 47 second half points and cut the deficit to two points before some clutch free throws from Baye Moussa Keita (of all people) and a huge swing of a Dion Waiters block and lay-up restored confidence. I have to give the sophomore center credit for some quality minutes off the bench, especially coming off an injury. I’m not sure how healed he was, though it was a freak minor injury, but I was surprised to see him play his best game in a little over a month just a few days after he sat out against Providence. Maybe Keita can return to his freshman year levels of production and even a little more, but I think we saw that getting the Syracuse back line into foul trouble may be the best recipe for a team looking to knock off the Orange – along with the other hallmarks of slicing up the zone and raining threes. Melo will have more games where he struggles with fouls. Rakeem Christmas is still learning. While I’m a gigantic fan of C.J. Fair, bigger teams will give him more problems than what Marquette’s depleted back line could offer up. In a nutshell, if Fab Melo gets in foul trouble, there’s a decent chance you’re going to have an opening. I think Williams realized this, but it didn’t break Marquette’s way in the first half when Melo was racking up drawn charge calls.
Elsewhere, the guard play outside of a highly forgettable effort from Scoop Jardine was tremendous. Dion Waiters had another great game, and I love how reliable he’s become in the scoring column. Last season, through 17 games, Waiters had only cracked double figures in five games. This season, through 17 games, in a guard rotation that changed very little from the previous season in terms of personnel, he’s failed to score ten points or more just four times. There aren’t many signs bigger than that conveying that the sophomore guard has bought in and changed his outlook.
Lastly, it appears as though we’re about to enter the middle of a patented Brandon Triche hot streak. He’s hit eight of his last 14 threes to up his accuracy mark beyond the arc from 38.8% to 42.6%. His aggression is also noted in his seven boards against Marquette, and he’s especially hitting the offensive glass hard. Over 68% of his rebounds have been off of Syracuse misses, which has helped to extend possessions. If history is an indication, and I think it is, consistent scoring from Brandon Triche has a shelf life, so it’ll be interesting to see how long he stays hot this time around.
On one last statistical note, the high expectations placed by many (including myself, in some ways) on Kris Joseph, coupled with his steady play, make it seem like he’s actually been a little under the radar among everything going on with the Orange this season. On the contrary, he’s climbed into the top 50 all-time scoring list at Syracuse, going from 55th entering the season to 39th, where he currently stands. The next four players on the list (Damone Brown, Arinze Onuaku, Rick Jackson and George Hicker) are chunked together pretty tightly, and with 28 points against Villanova on Wednesday, Joseph could jump them all in just one game. That’s obviously a bit of a reach, since Joseph has never scored 28 in his career – his high is 26, against Providence last season – but he’s gradually climbing up the chart.
After Wednesday’s game, Syracuse goes into a weird pattern where they play Saturday, Monday, Saturday, Monday, Saturday and then a seven-day break to get to February. The work week is about to get tough from a fan endurance standpoint.