Overrated no longer

In late November, Jim Boeheim called this team “the most overrated team I’ve ever coached.” At the time, I completely agreed with him. I had watched the games. I had seen the team’s shooting troubles, defensive lapses and very close games against subpar competition (a 63-60 win over William & Mary??). Now, though? Now you have to really nitpick to find flaws. The Orange is improving by leaps and bounds, and after a 93-65 beating of a good Drexel team, I’m finally ready to no longer call this team overrated.

At the outset, this game looked like it could be close. Drexel was completely controlling the tempo. The Dragons were hoping to keep this game low-scoring and control the tempo, and it was working for about the first 12 minutes. Drexel didn’t allow a fast-break bucket until 6:57 remaining in the half when Scoop Jardine stole the ball and finished with an easy layup. Before that bucket, Syracuse led by just four, 16-12. The team hustled back and played great defense in the half court set. Syracuse didn’t move the ball well and wound up with some poor shots late in the shot clock. Drexel was getting some decent looks from deep but missed five open 3-pointers in the first half.

But after that steal and score from Jardine, the Orange was a completely different team. It went on a 15-4 run largely by getting the ball inside. The Orange got it inside with dribble penetration as well as some post-ups by Rick Jackson. But this first half spurt was nothing compared to its absolute domination in the second half.

Syracuse couldn’t have played a much more perfect half than the last 20 minutes Wednesday night. While Drexel had been able to largely stop the fast break opportunities in the first half, it could do no such thing in the second. On top of the transition baskets, the Orange got easy shots by being unselfish. The ball movement and player movement off the ball was phenomenal. Syracuse made Drexel pay when it double-teamed. That helps explain SU hitting on 18 of its first 20 shots. The Orange shot 72 percent in the half, making 23 of 32 attempts.

And an offense can’t be that good unless the defense is doing things well. These players are beginning to understand their role in the 2-3 zone and are getting quite comfortable. Drexel didn’t get many open looks at the hoop, and Syracuse limited second chance points. Drexel is one of the best rebounding teams in the country and had been out-rebounding its opponents by more than 14 boards a game. Wednesday night, Syracuse out-rebounded Drexel 35 to 24.

Recently, this team has shown no signs the normal weak spots Syracuse teams struggle with. Bad free throw shooting? The Orange made 18 of 24 last night. Poor 3-point shooting? Knocked down five of 12. Careless with the ball? Just nine turnovers in a game in which the team scored 93 points.

“Earlier in the year we were getting one or two guys, maybe, playing good,” Boeheim said after the game. “Everybody was good on offense tonight. It was just as well as we could play.”

The three who were especially good were Jackson, Jardine and Kris Joseph. Jackson had another double-double with 15 and 12, Scoop hit nine of 10 shots and scored 21 points, and Joseph set a career-high with 25 points on nine of 12 shooting. The three combined to shoot 74 percent and nearly outscored the entire Drexel team (61-65).

The offense has been tremendous recently, and that’s because there are no weak links. Sure, there will be nights that certain players aren’t hitting their shots, but everyone can handle the ball. There’s not one player who causes the crowd to cringe when he has the ball. Jardine has the occasional stupid decision, but there’s no denying he’s an amazing ball handler. They can all  dribble and they can all pass, and I don’t know if there has ever been a Syracuse team without one player who causes the crowd to get nervous when he has the ball.

This young squad is just beginning to play up to its potential, and that makes for perfect timing with Big East play beginning Tuesday against Providence.

Robbie Gillies is a senior columnist for The Juice Online. He is also an editor at Real Clear Sports. See more at http://www.realclearsports.com/