This Syracuse Orange team just flat-out wins basketball games. They walk out on the court, usually stumble out of the gate and fall behind for a little, and then somehow, someway, find a means to sprint to victory: eighteen and counting.
It’s actually amazing when you consider Syracuse’s shortcomings on offense. The team ranks in the bottom half of all of college basketball in 3-point shooting percentage, free-throw shooting percentage, assists per game, and points per game. Their overall shooting percentage of 46.1 is only good enough for 87th in the nation, but it gets them into the top half at least. Still, those are not the numbers you’d expect from the No. 2 team in the country.
The numbers you do expect are on the defensive end of the court, where opponents are committing 15.5 turnovers per game (6th most in the nation), while the Orange ranks 8th in the country with only 9.7 per game of its own. Most of those turnovers are coming from the 9.5 steals per game that the 2-3 zone is producing. Couple that with the five blocks per game from the big guys, and you can easily understand why Syracuse is eighth in the NCAA allowing just 58.2 points per contest.
Based on what we know statistically, it’d be easy to say that Syracuse has been riding its defense to this 18-0 start, and will falter if the defense struggles at any point in the season. Yet I don’t think it’s that cut and dry, simply because the offense has a little bit of everything in the arsenal as well.
Sure they haven’t been clicking on all cylinders thus far, but when you look at what they’ve done in spurts, you’d be hard-pressed to find another team in college basketball that has as many weapons as the Orange.
Need someone to finish off a fast break or slash through the lane? Jerami Grant is one of the best there is at finishing plays, and is riding that highlight-producing skill to a probable first round NBA draft selection in the spring.
Need a big-time 3? Yes, he’s streaky, but Trevor Cooney has shown why he was so highly-regarded coming out of high-school, not just behind the arc, but in all aspects of his game. He’s capable of lighting it up for an entire game, or being ice cold but still coming through when it counts.
Need a go-to isolation play? Is there a player you’d rather have with the ball on the baseline right now than C.J. Fair? His ability to separate and get his shot, or blow by an overeager defender, makes him one of the toughest covers in the country.
Need versatile players to fill a need off the bench? With Michael Gbinije and likely Tyler Roberson (with DaJuan Coleman out for the season) offering all-around skill sets in potentially increased minutes, this Syracuse offense has a plethora of diverse weapons. If one cylinder isn’t firing, another will, especially when you consider the guy leading the charge.
Speaking of which, need a mistake-free point guard to direct traffic, or grind out a much needed score at the end of the game, or drain an open 3, or get to the foul line and make some clutch free throws? Tyler Ennis, ladies and gentlemen. He has proven all season, and more than ever against Pittsburgh, that he’s a player beyond his years. Ranked fourth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, as a freshman no less, he has exceeded all expectations. As his scoring repertoire continues to grow at the constant urging of Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, Ennis is going to become a handful to contain, particularly with all of the weapons around him.
The only thing the Orange is lacking is a low-post option, but amazingly, Rakeem Christmas has begun to offer a few possessions of solid post play per game with crafty jump hooks, partially filling that void. Fair and Grant can also be counted on for some production out of the post when called upon, only adding to the multitude of ways ‘Cuse can beat its opponents.
Offensive variety coupled with one of the best defenses in the country is why this Syracuse squad has won 18 games already, and will win a whole bunch more. This team continues to prevail, and has proven so far that it has a myriad ways to succeed.Matt Goodman