After Syracuse barely pulled out the win against UNC-Asheville I wrote that it was an embarrassing performance. I said the Orange had no energy and no sense of urgency and if they performed the same way against Kansas State they’d lose.
The Orange did not have a repeat performance. In fact, they played one of their best games all season and suddenly all of those doubts cast after their first tournament game have begun to dissipate and are being replaced with hope.
In some ways this turned out to be an ideal matchup for Syracuse and a great way to get them back on track. Of course, the one aspect in which it was not ideal was in the rebounding category. Kansas State is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country and Saturday was no aberration.
The Wildcats grabbed 22 offensive rebounds and out-rebounded Syracuse 37 to 31. Without Fab Melo in the middle, Jordan Henriquez was a man amongst boys.
He tallied 17 boards including 11 on the offensive end. But despite the disparity, it was clear SU was hustling and putting forth the effort. In the first half, Rakeem Christmas was getting his hands on a lot of balls but was unable to secure the rebounds and even Scoop Jardine managed to battle off 6’6 Victor Ojeleye.
But what gave Syracuse the biggest advantage was the differences between Kansas State and UNC-Asheville. On defense, Kansas State plays almost exclusively man-to-man and on offense they weren’t looking for 3-point shots. The Wildcats inability to hit 3-point shots or even attempt them allowed Syracuse’s defense to collapse on the interior.
The Orange did a decent job getting out on the shooters but KSU was also reluctant to shoot it. They passed up many opportunities to look inside and eventually Syracuse clamped down and clogged the paint. James Southerland, Kris Joseph and Rakeem Christmas were all particularly active in helping double and sometimes triple-team in the post and cause tough shots or turnovers.
Maybe the worst thing a team can do against Syracuse is play man-to-man. The Orange are one of the most athletic teams in the country and they thrive on driving to the lane. Not many players can stop Scoop Jardine when he drives let alone the much more athletic Dion Waiters or Kris Joseph.
Syracuse was aggressive all night and when they weren’t getting dunks and layups they were drawing fouls and getting to the line. Syracuse knocked down 23 of 29 free throws compared to just 13-for-19 for the Wildcats.
But due to the offensive rebounding disparity and some uncharacteristic turnovers, Syracuse led by just one point at the half. But 4 minutes into the second half, the momentum completely shifted in favor of the Orange. Henriquez had just slammed back a missed shot to cut the lead to one point. It was the type of slam that could get a team going. It’s the type of slam that makes SportsCenter’s Top 10. But on the other end, Joseph drove right at Henriquez and the big man picked up his third foul and was sent to the bench.
Joseph missed his second free throw attempt but Christmas got the offensive board, missed a layup and Southerland got another offensive board and laid it back in. The Orange drove to hoop on nearly every possession from that point forward and either scored, drew a foul, or kicked it out for an open 3-pointer. The Orange went on a 9-2 run in Henriquez’s absence and even when he came back in he wasn’t nearly as effective. In the final 13 minutes he went just 1-of-3, had a turnover and just 4 rebounds. Once Syracuse built a sizable lead, they went into clock-burning mode and scored time and time again with under 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock to put the game away.
Just like that there is hope again. Hope brought on by shooting 66-percent in the second half and thoroughly dominating an opponent, Christmas finally playing like a McDonald’s All-American, hitting all five three-point attempts in the second half, and playing with energy and enthusiasm.
The Sweet 16 is a nice accomplishment but even without Melo that’s not enough. The Orange have been to the Sweet 16 three of the past four seasons and now it’s time to move beyond that. Syracuse will get its chance to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since the 2003 championship season Thursday when it takes on Wisconsin.