Defense, Ball Control Key For The Orange Against Temple
The headliner of the Gotham Classic tips Saturday afternoon with the Orange squaring off a highly inconsistent Temple squad at Madison Square Garden. For the most part, the Owls have taken care of business against the teams they were supposed to beat, which is one of the reasons why they bring a solid 8-2 record to New York, but poor shooting, a trend over its last four games, peaked in a surprising loss to Canisius, who Syracuse throttled last week.
The A-10 is good enough that with a top-half finish, Temple can be in decent position to capture a tournament bid, but through ten non-league games, their resume is wanting for quality wins. The Owls’ best victory to date is a win at Villanova, and in addition to Syracuse, they have a date with Kansas in Lawrence on January 6. Without a standout win on its resume, Temple will really have to make some noise in conference play, but a win on Saturday could change the conversation.
The Owls’ are hurting for consistency on offense. The team has broken the 70-point mark just once since December 5, hasn’t cracked 45% shooting as a team in a game since its third outing of the season. The Owls mustered just 63 points in a win Monday against Alcorn State, one of the worst teams D-I teams in the country, and followed that up with just 62 against Alcorn State. Much of the inconsistency can be traced to seniors Khalif Wyatt and Scootie Randall, who the team intended to be its leaders when the season started. Aside from big man Anthony Lee, who has been better than advertised at 10.4 points and 6.6 boards per night, the supporting cast hasn’t quite developed to the point where they can reliably step up on offense if one or both of Wyatt and Randall struggle. That has put the onus on the other important fundamental element of offense – holding onto the ball – as well as its defense. The Owls have bought time for its stars to come around by playing solid defense and holding onto the ball. The team nabs nine steals among their ten 15 turnovers forced per contest, while only turning the ball over ten times per game themselves.
Anthony Lee – Averaging 10.7 points and 5.3 rebounds in his last three games
Will Cummings: 3.7 steals per game over his last three outings
Khalif Wyatt – 30% shooting last five games, including 17.8% from three-point range
Scootie Randall – 28% shooting last four games, including 11% (3-27) from three-point range
Not surprisingly, Temple’s best chances for a win involve all their shooters getting out of the holes they’ve dug for themselves over the past few weeks, and the Orange would have to have an uncharacteristically poor game at the front of the zone for the to happen. At the same time, Syracuse loves to run, so a high-scoring affair by the Owls wouldn’t necessarily translate to a badly-needed win for them, and that’s where Temple’s defense would have to step up. Despite its recent performance, I don’t see them being able to keep up with the Orange, who have avoided the prolonged scoring droughts that have plagued the Owls.
One area to keep an eye on is how SU values the ball against a defense that can cause problems. Last season, the Orange turned the ball over on just 15.9% of its possessions, an overlooked key to its success. This season, that rate has rocketed up to 20% even with Michael Carter-Williams putting up a video game- like assist/turnover ratio. While the Orange have succeeded on offense in spite of suspect ball-handling outside of MCW, it’s still an area where Syracuse can stand to improve, and Temple will definitely look to frustrate the Orange.
The battle between Anthony Lee and Syracuse’s bigs should be an interesting one, though it’s a mismatch on paper. Dajuan Coleman has looked more comfortable with each passing game, and while Rakeem Christmas has been fed for easy looks down low, he’s also showed brief glimpses of range, so I’ll be curious to see how often he tries to pull Lee out of position by flashing out to the free throw line. If the Orange can exploit another mismatch and execute down low – Temple’s entire team has 40 blocks, or the same amount as Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita combined – they shouldn’t have much trouble.