Reaching For A Little Extra
Last night’s win over Cincinnati wasn’t a must-win by any stretch of the imagination, but it had that feeling as the Orange weathered a pair of outbursts to lock down defensively and do the right things on offense when it mattered most. Cincinnati started out hot, hitting four of five threes early, each more improbable than the last. After the Bearcats raced out to a 16-5 lead, however, Syracuse outscored Mick Cronin’s team 55-37 over the final 35 minutes. Through terrific defensive play and answers every time Yancy Gates tried to take the game over, the Orange earned a big victory on the road against a good team and, most importantly, without Fab Melo.
On offense, it wasn’t pretty as the Orange threatened to go without a made three-pointer for the first time since 1995, and again missed the power game Fab Melo brings to the table. I have a really hard time deciding who had the best game among Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph and Rakeem Christmas, so all three of them get game balls. Scoop had a frosty night from the free throw line, but delivered when it mattered and held onto the ball. He’s now averaged less than two turnovers per game over his last seven and has many fans, including myself, dragging their feet to the table for a heaping serving of crow.
Joseph led the team with an efficient 17 points, keyed a late run to tip the scales in the Orange’s favor going into halftime and kept the team in the game before ‘Cuse gained separation. For a stretch of about four minutes in the second half, he and Gates were the only players to hit shots, and if Joseph hadn’t answered, the Orange probably wouldn’t have won. With two of the team’s best scorers in Dion Waiters and James Southerland inconsistent, SU needed someone to deliver points in the worst way, and the senior stepped up. Until last night, I wasn’t convinced that Joseph could take a game over when his team needed him to, so it was nice to see him prove that he was up to the task. In fact, one could make the argument that the Orange didn’t look his way enough, and I don’t think I would disagree, but it was a joy to see him locked in and focused as he was.
Meanwhile, Rakeem Christmas played, without question, the best game of his young career. You wouldn’t know it if you took a look at the box score and saw a double-double from Yancy Gates, but Christmas defended about as well as you could expect a freshman to defend to while giving up around 40 pounds. While Gates finished with 16 points, he easily could’ve put in 25 if he finished on other opportunities and hit a few more free throws. Christmas’ movement and positioning were fundamentally sound; he committed two defensive fouls in 27 minutes of play (he was called for an illegal screen in the first half), and for some perspective, he’s had eight games this season with fewer minutes and at least three fouls. While it’s true that when Melo’s available, Christmas can afford to be more aggressive, he showed the ability to adjust to the need for him to stay out of foul trouble. He didn’t get caught biting on shot fakes and held his own on the glass when high levels of contact were expected and enabled by the refs. His performance jumps out even more when contrasted against Baye Keita’s season-long regression; Christmas’ nine rebounds on the night were more than Keita has grabbed in any game since February 2 of last year, and I don’t see many things Christmas can’t do as well if not better than the sophomore. Keita is still effective when the Orange put on the press, but I hope to see Christmas take on some more responsibility with Keita continuing to struggle, whether or not Melo returns.
Offensively, while the freshman wasn’t a scoring threat (and probably won’t be for awhile), he set screens all game long and delivered a beautiful pass from the top of the key to a cutting Scoop Jardine for an important basket towards the end of the game. Defenses will continue to play off him, but he showed a pulse on offense with his passing ability, and that’s all the team needs from him right now. I expected Christmas to have a breakout game defensively at some point, but I didn’t expect it to come on the road against one of the most talented big men he’ll face in the regular season.
Now, we play the waiting game to hear the latest on Fab Melo. While people closer to the situation than I am are giving off vibes that he’ll be back in action Saturday against West Virginia, the Mountaineers have another threat down low in Deniz Kilicli who will be tough to stop if the reserves aren’t at their best. By the time the game rolls around, the Mountaineers could be the next second-place team to challenge the Orange, so the ‘Cuse will need every minute of preparation they can get this week.