How satisfying to see Kyle Kuric score 3 points. How satisfying to watch Colonel Sanders go down in Louisville at his precious KFC Yum! Center. It wasn’t quite as delicious as a Double Down sandwich, but unlike the Double Down it won’t make Syracuse feel nauseous afterwards.
This game was like in Link (The Legend of Zelda) when Link faces Shadow Link. It’s as if they knew exactly what the other was going to do. It was a defensive battle only Big Ten fans could appreciate. Syracuse wasn’t used to that type of defensive pressure and struggled on offense. Somehow, the 2-3 zone still stupefies this team. They rarely flashed anyone to the perimeter and instead settled for contested jumpers early in this contest. The result was an abysmal 8-of-27 in the first half including 1-of-9 from 3-point range. Of their first 21 shots, 9 were from deep. They have good passing big men that can shoot in CJ Fair, Fab Melo or Kris Joseph. Why not have any of those three flash in the high post and look to score or distribute?
Syracuse has struggled shooting even when wide open so when Louisville put the pressure on the results were even worse. The Orange made just two buckets from outside the paint. It’s not like they were automatic around the basket either. By my count, they made 19-of-39 from in the paint, missing countless layups and bunnies (on many of which there was a lot of contact—the officiating was horrendous on both ends of the floor).
Maybe the saying should go ‘the best offense is a good defense,’ because without the Orange’s efforts on that end of the floor they lose this game. Peyton Siva shredded through the zone early, scoring 8 of the Cardinals first 13 points. Many will point to Siva’s foul trouble as a major turning point in the game. He picked up his third foul with 6:51 remaining in the first half and had to sit until 13:35 remaining in the second half. But Louisville’s struggles began before he was pulled and that’s in part due to adjustments made by Syracuse. Siva was beating guards off the dribble and then either taking it right at the second line of defense or dishing after the help came over. The Orange adjusted by backing off of Siva. It’s something they should have done from the very beginning of the game. He is shooting 18 percent from 3-point range this season and his biggest asset is his speed. The guards neutralized his efforts by taking a step back and daring him to shoot.
The other major adjustment Syracuse made was on Gorgui Dieng. Louisville placed the 6’11 center at the free throw line and Dieng was able to feed it down low once the help collapsed on him. But Dieng can’t consistently knock down that 15-footer. Once Syracuse backed off of him and contained the threats down low, Dieng had no choice but to pass it back out to the perimeter. With 1:42 remaining they fed Dieng at the line and no defender was within 3 feet of him. He tried to force it down low and his pass was picked off by Kris Joseph. The play allowed Syracuse to run 30 more seconds off the clock while clinging to a one-point lead.
The Orange’s struggles on the glass have been well documented but last night they exerted the type of effort necessary to win close games like this one. Louisville outrebounded Syracuse but only by a couple, 39-37. Syracuse had seven different players with at least 4 boards including guards Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Dion Waiters, who all had 5 apiece.
Syracuse made it through their ‘Hell Week,’ passing every test. The victories against Georgetown and Louisville weren’t exactly things of beauty but this team has shown it can win when many things don’t go their way, and that’s a sign of a truly special team.