Syracuse struggles disconcerting, but end results not bad

Through the first 4 games of the season Syracuse dominated their competition. But with that competition being against the likes of Manhattan and Colgate it was difficult to draw any real conclusions. In the past two games they have struggled in the first half and then asserted themselves in the second and yet, it’s still difficult to draw any real conclusions about this team because it’s unclear how good their past two opponents are. Neither Virginia Tech nor Stanford is ranked but the polls are largely a joke this early in the season and the two teams are a perfect 9-0 outside of the losses to the Orange. In fact, Stanford was the only unbeaten team in the Pac-12 before last night.

Just like against Virginia Tech, the offense looked unprepared. The ball movement was slow and prodding and Stanford did a good job not allowing easy shots. Much of the sloppy play can be attributed to the referees. They were allowing a lot of contact on both sides of the court and that led to a lot of turnovers and poor shots.

While the offense struggled, the defense continues to be the strong suit of this squad. Fab Melo was again the anchor and what makes this defense so scary. He played a career-high 32 minutes and finished with 6 points, 9 rebounds, 3 steals and 3 blocks. He’s having the type of impact Hasheem Thabeet had in his final season at UConn. All 3 of Melo’s blocks came in the first 12:30. That was enough to scare off guards from testing the 7-footer. Just like with Thabeet, the guards were always aware of his presence and even though he didn’t block any more shots, he had a huge impact on the Cardinal offense. Melo allows every other defensive player to gamble because they know he will be there as a last line of defense.

In the past two games we’ve seen the typical early season tightening of the lineup. Against Virginia Tech 7 players tallied at least 15 minutes of action. Last night that number was down to just 6. Here’s who was a non-factor last night and why:

* Michael Carter-Williams (2 minutes): Threw an errant inbounds pass out of bounds.
* Rakeem Christmas (6 minutes): He didn’t play poorly but didn’t do anything to warrant more minutes.
* James Southerland (7 minutes): 0-2 from 3-point range.
* Baye Keita (6 minutes): He tallied 4 fouls in his 6 minutes of play and Melo was fantastic.

That left Boeheim playing Kris Joseph, Fab Melo, C.J. Fair, Dion Waiters, Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche. That is the core. That is the team Boeheim is going to live and die with for better or worse.

One of the biggest question marks of the season is whether Joseph will step up to be an elite player and their go-to guy. So far the answer is: maybe? There were a few moments where it seemed like it was time for KJ to take over. He hit a shot to give Syracuse the lead 15-14 and I thought that might get him going. He didn’t score again the rest of the half. Then, he had the ball in isolation early in the second half with Syracuse trailing, 28-27. He passed it without making much of a move. Then, Stanford’s Anthony Brown threw down a thunderous dunk (highlight of the night) off a missed shot and the crowd grew anxious as the Cardinal took a 52-45 lead. And THAT’s when Joseph took over. He was 3 of 11 until that point and finished 5 of 5 including scoring 12 of their final 24 points. He banked in a jumper high off the glass, made another smooth shot and knocked down a huge 3-pointer. It took him awhile but he did take over and he made all the difference. It would be nice if it could happen earlier and consistently but it’s tough to argue over the final results.

What also led to Joseph and the Orange’s surge was the full-court press. Through much of the final 6:30 Syracuse put on the pressure and forced turnover after turnover. They had 6 steals that yielded 7 points in the final 6:30 as the Orange outscored the Cardinal 22-8 to end the game. The full-court press has been extremely impressive so far and I’d like to see them utilize it more often. Of course, if they are playing a tight rotation of 7 players that would be far too taxing on those players.

It’s tough to complain about a 6-0 start but a top 5 rating comes with extreme scrutiny. It’s disconcerting that such a veteran squad can struggle for such long stretches. With veterans like Joseph, Jardine and Triche they shouldn’t go through these kinds of ups and downs. Consistency will be key when they enter Big East play and this team is still working through issues. They have Eastern Michigan this Tuesday before welcoming fellow top 10 team Florida next Friday.