Jerami Grant is back, but is Syracuse?

Sunday afternoon, Jerami Grant returned to the Syracuse lineup, logging more minutes against Florida State than he had in the previous three games combined. Grant’s return was nothing worse than a smashing success, as he posted 16 points and eight rebounds while acknowledging having some rust.

The sophomore forward looked like the player SU fans had grown accustomed to seeing on the floor earlier in the season, a supreme athlete who alternates slithering between opposing big men on crafty drives with soaring to seize rebounds and attempt ferocious dunks.

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Grant is vital to Syracuse’s success

Grant also had to overcome some expected roadblocks in the game. In the game, Grant absorbed a hard foul that sent him sprawling on the hardwood, but after a second, he popped back up and went to the line. He also showed no ill effects of sitting, either on the bench in the first half or at the intermission.

» Related: What to watch for with Syracuse as postseason approaches

The forward went to the bench at the 5:19 mark of the first half and stayed out of the action until after the break. While Grant was stretched out by a trainer after emerging for the second half (and possibly in the locker room during the break, as well) and went through warm-ups with his teammates, the second half started approximately 30 minutes after he went to the bench in the opening session. Simply being able to play freely after a prolonged period of relative inactivity speaks to how well his back is recovering.

As a team, Syracuse also passed the test of readjusting to Grant’s return. It took a little time, but the Orange offense adjusted nicely. While the team shot nearly 48 percent in the game, their play with him on offense broke down this way (please forgive if I miscounted possessions in the play-by-play):

  • Start of game until 5:19 left in first half with Grant playing: 24 possessions, 8-of-19 FG (42.1 percent), six turnovers, 23 points (0.96 pts/possession, 1.57 pts/minute)
  • The final 5:19 of the first half with Grant resting: eight possessions, 4-of-7 FG (57.1 percent), two turnovers, 10 points (1.25 pts/possession, 1.88 pts/minute)
  • Second half with Grant playing: 30 possessions, 17-of-34 FG (50 percent), four turnovers, 41 points (1.34 pts/possession, 2.05 pts/minute)

In case you were wondering, FSU is not a bunch of defensive lightweights, averaging just under a point per possession on defense and ranking 25th in the nation in field goal percentage allowed at 39.7 percent. Oh, and those stats are after SU roughed them up.

It seems that more of the “rust” shown by Grant, and the rest of the Syracuse offense, by extension, was in the first half as they simply had to re-acclimate to playing with him. Once the team got a taste of having the ultra-athletic forward on the floor and had a chance get their affairs in order at halftime, they laid the wood to Florida State, including 27 points in the game’s final 11:30 (a 94-point pace for a full game).

Syracuse’s offensive resurgence that came from playing with a full deck on Sunday was a result of their opponents having to reshuffle their defensive scheme. On Tuesday, Georgia Tech relied on a simple, three-pronged plan to ruin senior night at the Carrier Dome:

  1. The Yellow Jackets chased Cooney to prevent open looks and force him into contested and/or off-balance shots.
  2. Tech also deployed C.J. Fair’s defender in a similarly aggressive manner, not allowing him clean looks in the mid-range, his bread and butter, and also had their other frontcourt players congest the paint to defend against his drives.
  3. When any Syracuse big man other than Fair set a screen for Tyler Ennis in the pick-and-roll, the screener’s defender would charge the point guard with those sagging big men covering the key behind him. This also played into the Ennis’ patience, as he would retreat and re-set the offense instead of forcing the issue by heading into the lane.

With Grant back on the floor and feeling no ill effects from his back, Florida State could not mimic that plan.

» Related: Syracuse enjoys rare easy victory as it defeats Florida State

While not being close to a dead-eye perimeter shooter, Grant has shown the ability to knock down the occasional jump shot and, more importantly, quickly eat up space on his drives with his length, slashing and spinning to the bucket quickly with just a few strides and an outstretched arm or two. His defender must respect that and cannot cheat into the lane. This respect opened up things in the middle for Fair, who responded by getting into a serious groove, hitting 8-of-9 field goals in the second half, and Rakeem Christmas, who had a putback and a pair of dunks in that span.

That elite length and athleticism also helped fuel the Orange to a dominating 43-24 rebounding advantage and SU ripped down 17 of those boards on the offensive end and converted them into 19 second chance points. In Syracuse’s previous two games, they totaled 23 offensive rebounds good for 21 points. Grant’s return almost allowed them to equal those marks in one game against a team that rolls out a pair of seven-footers.

In short, Jim Boeheim has been right all along when asked about Grant’s back injury. The coach acknowledged that this Syracuse team needs all their players to be successful. Grant’s return showed ample evidence that, once again, the head coach is right and now opposing teams have a lot more to worry about.

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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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