Trevor Cooney has only played one regular-season game in the Carrier Dome so far, but already the home crowd knows to hold its breath every time he shoots.
In Syracuse’s 88-57 suplex of Wagner on Sunday, Cooney shot a solid-but-not-spectacular 2-for-5 from downtown, scoring 8 points, but you could feel the crowd priming itself to explode every time the ball left his hands.
For a player who’s expected to stay in school for 5 years and isn’t on NBA teams’ radar (draftexpress.com has him listed as the 100th-best prospect in his class), Cooney’s been weirdly hyped coming into his redshirt freshman season, after developing a quasi-mythical aura among Orange fans last year. Late in the season, as opponents packed the paint and the Syracuse stars clanked outside jumper after outside jumper, word of Cooney lighting it up from behind the arc in practice and warmups spread with the breathless air of a Bigfoot sighting.
But however smooth his 3-point stroke—and rest assured, it’s smooth—Cooney has already put the lie to the idea that he’s just a sharpshooter from outside. In 20 minutes of action Sunday, the freshman swiped six steals.
“I don’t know where [the steals] came from, I mean I can play defense,” he said. “I hope people still label me as just a shooter. They can come flying at me and then I can make plays for my teammates off the dribble.”
Cooney did prove himself a surprisingly confident playmaker, at one point threading a long bounce pass through traffic to a streaking Brandon Triche for a fast-break layup.
But it was on the defensive end where he impressed the most. He jumped passing lanes, got deflections, hit the floor for loose balls, and gave senior James Southerland a run for his money as the most visibly energetic player on the court.
“[Trevor] was very good defensively. I think that was the most impressive part, I thought he did a good job on defense, he had some loose balls, a couple really good steals,” coach Jim Boeheim said after the game. “Six, I don’t know about six. He must have a relative keeping stats.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Boeheim’s been saying for awhile that Cooney would surprise people with his versatility.
“He’s a good basketball player. He’s not just a shooter, he can do other things,” Boeheim said during the team’s preseason media day. “[He] probably benefitted more from last year than we ever could have hoped. Because of his work ethic he just went off the charts. He really worked unbelievably hard, did a great job in the weight room, he played the most minutes in practice of any player. I never took him out of practice…. Any normal year Trevor would have played last year.”
That redshirt experience is obvious even to the casual observer. Unlike true freshmen DaJuan Coleman and Jerami Grant, both of whom did some good things on Sunday but also at times looked lost offensively as well as in the elastic rotations of the 2-3 zone, there’s nothing tentative about Cooney’s game right now. He knows what he needs to do and where he needs to be.
That bodes well for Syracuse’s offense, which is looking much more versatile than last season. There were actual post-ups (with, granted, mixed results) called on Sunday for Rakeem Christmas and DaJuan Coleman. Baye Keita looks like he’s morphed into a capable finisher. Southerland showed off an improved handle and diversified offensive game. Brandon Triche looked aggressive. CJ Fair might have struggled but there’s no reason to think he won’t be as good as last year, if not better.
And of course Michael Carter-Williams, after a disjointed first half, rang up 11 dimes to just three turnovers, including a dazzling four-minute stretch in the second frame where he took a scalpel to the Seahawk defense, assisting on five Orange buckets in that time.
On the defensive end, if Cooney consistently brings anything like the steal-generating acumen his play on Sunday suggests, it will go a long way toward replacing the defensive production of departed NBA lottery pick Dion Waiters, whose quick hands helped fuel SU’s swarming fast-break attack last year.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself after seeing only 20 minutes of action (Cooney barely played in the gusty Battle of the Midway against SDSU). And Wagner is one of those small-college teams that Syracuse more or less bribes to be a punching bag early in the season.
But I’ll close by making a bold prediction: Trevor Cooney is going to swing a tournament game this year. Whether through a single backbreaking three, a GMac-esque barrage of triples, or the kind of savvy, hard-nosed defensive play we expect from four-year veterans, he’s going to push the Orange over the top in an elimination game.
Actually, that doesn’t seem like a bold prediction. It seems like an obvious one. And that’s a testament to just how strong his debut was.