In the days leading up to each game, The Juice Online will tackle a burning question about the Syracuse basketball team in “Tipoff Countdown.”
Today’s topic: What has been the Orange’s biggest surprise?
Syracuse has played two regular season and two exhibition games, giving us a decent sample size to make some observations. For example, the Orange, who has always struggled rebounding the ball because of its reliance on the zone, is 9th in the NCAA in rebounds per game, averaging 47.0 boards per contest.
Here are some other surprises in the early part of the season:
1. Trevor Cooney’s defense
We all knew that Cooney was a sharpshooter, and had the best stroke SU’s seen since Gerry McNamara. But did anyone expect Cooney to be a plus in the 2-3 zone? Cooney tallied six steals against Wagner, leading SU coach Jim Boeheim to say, “[Trevor] was very good defensively. I think that was the most impressive part, I thought he did a good job on defense, he had some loose balls, a couple really good steals. Six, I don’t know about six. He must have a relative keeping stats.”
2. Baye Moussa Keita’s offense
Remember last year when catching a pass was an adventure for Keita? That’s no longer the case. Keita scored a career-high 15 points in 13 minutes against Wagner, several of them pick and rolls. “He’s improved on catching the ball and he’s improved in finishing,” guard Michael Carter-Williams said. “I have as much trust in him as I have in any big man that I’ve ever played with.”
3. Jerami Grant’s overall game
There is a glut at the forward position, but Grant may see meaningful minutes in conference play if he keeps this up. Grant was active in the zone and also on offensive around the rim. Boeheim had this to say about him earlier in the year: “Jerami Grant has really opened some of his teammates’ eyes this fall with his play.” Just stay away from the 3-pointer.
4. Rakeem Christmas’ defense
Fab who? Christmas has doubled his production across the line with the exception of blocks, where he’s tripled it from his freshman year. He’s averaging 25 minutes. 5.5 points, 6.5 boards and 3.0 blocks. While many SU big men take a leap forward in their sophomore years, Christmas has even been ahead of that curve so far.
5. James Southerland’s handle
Remember when Southerland wouldn’t take more than two dribbles? That is a thing of the past. Southerland’s vastly improved his ability to move with the ball, and that includes the ability to get in the lane.
6. Michael Carter-Williams’ handle
No one doubts Carter-Williams’ offensive ability. He can shoot, drive and dish with the best in college basketball. But the Naismith Watch List player has shown a glaring problem in his game so far—turnovers. Carter-Williams had the ball picked clean from him on two consecutive possessions in the second half against Wagner, and is averaging 3.5 turnovers a game. He is expected to protect the ball better than that.