Defense Carries Orange To Win
There’s no denying that last night’s putrid display of offense bordered on unwatchable. SU’s guards stunk up the joint as Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters and Brandon Triche combined to go just 7-29 from the floor, but they were not alone. All night. the team hit just one shot from outside the paint, a three from Waiters, and while neither team did itself any favors, the onslaught of whistles from Jim Burr made it nearly impossible for both the Orange and Cardinals to establish momentum for a huge majority of the game.
But despite all the ugliness, Syracuse won in Louisville for the first time in five trips south and the first time in seven attempts against the Cardinals overall, and that’s the bottom line. A performance like this on offense in the NCAA Tournament is liable to get Syracuse bounced, because better teams will be able to convert offensive rebounds into points and hold onto the ball enough to put a few more points on the board. On the bright side, though – there just aren’t many teams in the country who can go into one of its conference’s toughest road environments on just one day of rest, shoot 34% from the field, have its best player battle foul trouble, have its other senior leader put up a goose egg in the scoring column, rebound less than 60% of the other team’s misses… and still come out on top. This is no recipe for sustainable success, but the team did prove that it can win ugly, with so much going against it. While you could look at the Georgetown game and come to the same conclusion, last night’s scoring struggles made last Wednesday look like the silky-smooth offense of the 2009-10 Orange.
SU escaped the KFC Yum! Center with the win by doing what it’s done best when the shots haven’t fallen (and usually when they have, too): Holding onto the ball, slamming the offensive boards, hitting free throws – something that probably deserves its own post – and turning over the other team. For some perspective, Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva combined for ten turnovers, two more than Syracuse’s total as a team, and six consecutive defensive stops for the Orange allowed it to claw back after falling behind by five in the final minutes – no small deficit after remembering that SU scored just 46 before holding the Cardinals at bay.
We also learned that after rotating players at will for the first half of the season and into the early part of conference play, this team’s rotation has circled back around to the old standard of 7.5 players when it comes to close games. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but the sooner we can stop calling Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita key cogs in Jim Boehiem’s rotation just because they take up space, the better off everyone will be. We’re back to the familiar 7.5-man group, with Dion Waiters and C.J. Fair entering games around the same time and James Southerland getting anywhere from 5 to 25 minutes of run every game. While we know that this team has ten players capable of making an impact, all ten won’t always get the opportunity, but they also don’t need to for the team to win.
After sweeping the most intense portion of its schedule, the Orange have clinched an outcome no worse than a first-round bye in the Big East Tournament and a top-four finish in the standings. Things will lighten up from here with the team idle until Sunday, when it faces Rutgers in a typically friendly atmosphere in Piscataway followed by a home date against the upstart South Florida Bulls.