Item: Sitting at virtually the middle of the pack of the 15 team ACC standings heading into Wednesday night’s home game against North Carolina State (9:00 p.m. ET/ ACC Network), Syracuse (17-8, 6-6) controls its own destiny for making the NCAA Tournament, but there’s plenty of work ahead.
Sandwiched around the improbable Final Four run in 2016 are two seasons without an appearance in the Big Dance, certainly tough to swallow around these parts spoiled by the success of the Jim Boeheim era, the residual effect of NCAA sanctions in 2015 resulting in no postseason, and just not quite enough quality wins last year relegating the Orange to the NIT.
Now with six games left (three home, three away) in a highly balanced ACC, and the quest to finally win a first-ever conference tournament game in Brooklyn next month, Syracuse still controls its March objectives, albeit with half that remaining schedule coming versus three Top 14 teams (Clemson, Duke, North Carolina) in this week’s AP Poll.
Playing basically a six man rotation, with a mixed bag of results coming off the bench this season, hasn’t been so much of a handicap as playing with enough in-game consistency, especially on offense, at the same time. While the offense has struggled in stretches in conference play (65 points per game average in the ACC), other times the defense has given up too many inopportune shots despite being 12th in the nation in scoring defense (as of Feb. 11) and 4th in field goal percentage defense in a season with eight losses so far in 25 games.
For the most part Boeheim’s teams find a way to jell come Valentine’s Day each year, and after Sunday’s win over Wake Forest to even its conference record, Boeheim was quick to remind that it takes time for some of the new Syracuse starters such as Frank Howard and Paschal Chukwu to find their groove over a 31 game span.
“First year of playing the majority of the time, that first year takes time,” Boeheim said Sunday after SU got back to .500 in the ACC. “ (Frank’s) a much better player, a really good player now, and he can even get better. Paschal it’s his first year. When he and Bourama (Sidibe) are both there and healthy we’ve got a pretty good center combination.”
Another first year starter who has stepped right into contributing a near double-double average is Oshae Brissett (14 points/nine rebounds per game), third in scoring and the team’s leading rebounder. With the ACC so strong with talented players, Brissett has taken a more cerebral approach to his game, and that’s been shared by his teammates.
“Everyone is staying with it, everyone’s staying focused,” Brissett told cuse.com Sunday. “Those (ACC) losses that we had, I feel like everyone’s mind was all over the place. But now I know everyone’s focused on what we’ve got to do. Sticking to the game plan, and coming to practice more ready than we were in those past couple of games (league defeats).”
There’s no doubt that Boeheim will have the Orange, even down to basically six players, prepared for the stretch run, but there’s no easy games. None of that is bothersome to Tyus Battle who when the need arises has carried the team offensively (20.3 points per game), while seeking to become only the 15th player in ‘Cuse history to average 20 plus points per game.
“A lot of teams in the country play with six guys,” Battle said Sunday. “So we just to keep on fighting, keep on playing, we’re all in good shape so we should be fine.”