For Syracuse basketball, a little assertiveness goes a long way

Cooney's departure opens up a starting spot
Trevor Cooney hit four 3s in a win over Colgate

“Play like you have nothing to lose.”

While Jim Boeheim may not have actually given this directive to Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije, it seems like he has. The two veteran guards have played aggressively of late and the decisiveness has paid off in spades for the Syracuse Orange.

Cooney has been quite impressive in his last five outings, shifting from a player who looks for his teammates to set him up to one who attacks the game, making things happen. The guard has made 25-of-62 shots overall, good for a 40.3 percent mark. The aggressiveness is also shown in an increase from under nine field goal attempts per game to 12.4 in the last five games.

That assertiveness seems to have had a positive effect on his perimeter shooting, as well. After starting out in a shooting slump from three-point range, Cooney has picked up his outside shot in the last five games, knocking down 14-of-35 shots from deep, good for a 40 percent mark. (That includes an 0-for-4 game against St. John’s.) Prior to that time? Try 9-for-33, good for a 27.3 percent accuracy rate.

Cooney has also shot 16 free throws in those five games after 13 in the first six and has shown a strong assist-to-turnover ratio of 12-to-4, an improvement from the 12-to-7 mark he posted in the first half dozen games.

» Related: Syracuse cruises to win over Colgate

Gbinije has also shown a marked improvement with a shift to a more aggressive style in the same timeframe, including a promotion to the starting lineup. The only one of the five games where Gbinije didn’t reach double figures in scoring was the game against Louisiana Tech. Gbinije sat the second half of that contest with a back issue.

In the other four games, the Duke transfer is averaging 13 points per game on 20-of-37 shooting, good for a 54.1 percent mark. Not bad for someone who started the season shooting 12-of-35 (34.3 percent) from the floor. Having started the season making 2-of-17 from three-point range, including missing the last 11 of his tries from deep, Gbinije has splashed four of his last eight shots from beyond the arc.

It’s not just shooting for Gbinije, either. In his four full games in the last five contests, he is also averaging 5.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists, including eight boards against Villanova and five helpers against both St. John’s and Villanova.

Their combined aggression has transformed the Orange from a team reliant on Rakeem Christmas’ developing post game and chasing down offensive rebounds for points to one with a multi-faceted offense. And while Christmas has continued to be a consistent offensive force (16.5 points per game, 13 or more points in ten of 11 games), the strong play of Cooney and Gbinije have allowed Syracuse to define roles for some of its complementary players.

Freshman Chris McCullough no longer needs to score for the Orange to have a shot at
winning (he’s mired in a 2-for-16 shooting slump and averaging four points over his last three after scoring in double digits in his first eight games). Freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph can focus on running the team instead of forcing the issue. Tyler Roberson has settled into a role as an energy player who rebounds instead of trying to do too much (he started the season making 14-of-38 on field goals, but has made 14-of-22 in the last three games).

Playing like they have nothing to lose appears to be pushing the Orange to win.

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About Jim Stechschulte 894 Articles
A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by He currently resides in Syracuse.