Four games in, Syracuse sees success and room for improvement

Four games into the season, Syracuse is ranked in the top ten, but have not put together a full game suggesting they merit that lofty perch. Their tests they have passed thus far are more like pop quizzes compared to those on the immediate horizon, as they travel to Hawaii for three games in as many days in the Maui Invitational, followed by a trip home to host Indiana in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

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Trevor Cooney has become a threat

As part of that failure to put a full game together, many trends, both good and bad, have been put on full display. In fact, many of them are not simply good or bad, but a combination of both. For example…

  • C.J. Fair is the Orange’s go-to guy on offense… unless the opponent gets into his chest, denying him touches and space he needs to wiggle to the bucket for his assortment of floaters and flips.

Fair paces the Orange at 18 points per game, but that average is submarined by a seven-point night against St. Francis where he made only 2-of-13 from the floor. With the Terriers giving future opponents a simple plan to limit him on offense, in large part by not allowing him to catch the ball in space, Fair’s challenge is to adjust his game accordingly to get open looks.

» Related: Syracuse survives scare against St. Francis

  • Tyler Ennis has been going through the ups and downs of a freshman point guard’s life.

Ennis has shown the ability to score (16 points against Fordham, four threes against Colgate) and set up his teammates effectively (seven assists against Cornell, 2.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio), but there are still problems. The freshman shot 1-of-14 combined against Cornell and St. Francis (Brooklyn) and also missed a pair of free throws late in the latter game. As he continues to settle into the role, Ennis should be able to find the mix of when to set up his mates and when to look for his own offense.

  • The three-headed center will provide numbers, but who does it will vary on a nightly basis.

Rakeem Christmas, DaJuan Coleman, and Baye Moussa Keita have combined to average almost 14 points and 16.5 rebounds per game. Christmas (once) and Coleman (twice) have notched double digits in scoring in three of four games, but the former has two points in the last two games and the latter has a scoreless game and a two-point effort. Those two and Keita need to provide enough consistent offense to merit a mention in opponents’ game plans.

  • Trevor Cooney is officially a threat.

While he has only made three three-pointers since dropping seven on Cornell in the season opener, that reflects more on Cooney being a target of opposition scouting than anything he has failed to do. Against St. Francis, when the Orange were going through a scoring drought during the second half, head coach Jim Boeheim sent Cooney back in the game and immediately called offensive plays designed to get him three-point looks. Cooney also had a couple strong forays to the rim in the game and his increased success there will only help him and the team.

  • Michael Gbinije is getting more comfortable at the point.

While he will likely never be confused with any of the star point guards who have called the Carrier Dome home, Gbinije has been very efficient as a ballhandler and distributor. Gbinije has ten assists and a lone turnover through four games, a pleasant surprise after his up-and-down moments in exhibition play. In fact, Gbinije has done a little bit of everything for the Orange and the only real warning sign from him is a 5-of-12 night at the line against Colgate.

» Related: Instant analysis of SU’s four win on the season

  • Jerami Grant is the energy and athleticism jolt he has been expected to be as the sixth man.

Grant is averaging almost 12 points and eight rebounds a game, including 4.3 boards a night on the offensive glass. If he can keep up that effort against a higher caliber of opponent and clean up the free throw shooting (45.8 percent at the stripe on the most attempts on the team while missing a game), Grant will be a huge asset for SU.

  • The free throw shooting, in general has been spotty.

Fair and Cooney have been near automatic at the line and Christmas has gotten off to a strong start, but the team is collectively shooting under 62 percent at the stripe, mostly because opponents seem to be willing to take their chances fouling other players. Coleman, Gbunije, and Grant are all under 50 percent on the year and have combined for over half the free throws the team has tried on the year. While their energy is certainly a plus, their results at the line have certainly been less than ideal.

  • What happened to the three point defense?

What was a huge strength of the team last year has been a concern in the early going. The Orange have allowed opponents to hit 37 percent of their threes on the season, including just under 40 percent in the last three games. Those numbers are partially skewed, however, in how and when the triples were made. Fordham made nine threes in the second half after being buried before halftime. Colgate made 11 threes, but took almost 60 percent of their shots in the game from behind the arc and the shut out the Raiders from deep in the game’s final 12 minutes as they pulled away.

In summation, the pieces seem to be there and it sometimes takes a while when players are new (Ennis), new to their roles (Cooney, Fair) or both (Gbinije) to achieve cohesion and consistency. If nothing else, the upcoming schedule gives us a chance to learn a lot more about this year’s Syracuse team, but the team will certainly learn even more.

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Jim Stechschulte

About Jim Stechschulte

A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.
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