For six games, the Syracuse Orange basketball team meandered their way through the heart of the Big East schedule in search of a new identity without senior James Southerland.
Without Southerland due to an academic eligibility issue, SU struggled to fill the bucket. The Orange, after averaging 80.6 points per game through the season’s first 16 games with Southerland, averaged just 64.6 without him. They shot just 41 percent in those half-dozen games, only 32 percent from beyond the arc.
In his first game back Sunday against St. John’s, it took a 64-second span for Southerland to remind the Orange what their old identity was when they have him roaming the floor. The smooth-shooting forward sank two 3-pointers in just over a minute during the second half and totaled 13 points in his return as the Orange won their 37th straight home game by 19 points.
And just like that, the Orange once again became a contender for the national championship.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Syracuse had its most efficient conference game of the season against St. John’s with Southerland back in the fold. It scored the most points per 100 possessions (118.5), shot the best from the field (53.7 percent), tied for the most assists (20) and made the most 3-pointers (10) in any Big East game thus far.
Southerland makes the team whole again. Well, almost…as long as DaJuan Coleman is recovering from knee surgery, the team still doesn’t have all its parts. But, the lanky gunslinger is an irreplaceable part.
No, he’s not the best player on the team. He probably falls under Brandon Triche, C.J. Fair and Michael Carter-Williams in that category. But as a 3-point marksman (his 36 3-pointers on the season still are tops on the team despite the time he missed) who can stretch a defense, he brings something to the table that nobody else can for this Syracuse team.
And he pushes everybody else back into more comfortable roles. Carter-Williams can get back to creating a bit more rather than having to focus more on scoring. Triche doesn’t have to feel the burden of needing to score more. Jerami Grant can go back to easing his way into the college game instead of being thrust into the spotlight.
But filling in the gap while Southerland was out may have made certain guys more prepared for the stretch run. The aggressiveness Triche showed (two 23-point games in the six games Southerland missed) is the way he should play all the time. Grant showed he is capable of playing crunch-time minutes and producing. Those will become valuable in March when the Orange will be playing top-level teams on a nightly basis and will need to bring their best every time out.
Let’s face it…without Southerland, this Syracuse team did not look like a team capable of cutting down the nets in early April. But, No. 1 Indiana lost last week, making it five straight weeks in which the top-ranked team has fallen. The re-addition of Southerland means Syracuse once again lays claim to a seat in the game of musical chairs for contenders vs. pretenders on the national landscape.Matt Dagostino