Item: Besides the reliance on three point shooting, which will define the now Top 50 ranked Orange’s offensive productivity as the team has averaged 68.1 points per game through the 10 games so far – essentially right at last year’s 67.6 ppg mark (which was 155th nationally out of 351 Div. I teams), a tightened, more active zone defense with accompanying better rebounding, will be just as critical in determining how successful this upcoming season plays out, continuing Saturday against longtime upstate rival Cornell (5-4) at the Dome (12:00 p.m. ET / ACCRSNs-ESPN3).
Sure, Syracuse (7-3) doesn’t usually lose as many as three non-conference games before the start of the past Big East or now current ACC league matchups (it’s only happened three times since the ’03 title season), but then again the non conference schedules have gotten a tad tougher over the last 11 years under Jim Boeheim, diverging away from the onetime stigma attached to ‘Cuse hoops that SU didn’t leave the state of New York until the New Year.
Since 2004, there’s been an annual Syracuse appearance in a preseason, multi-day tournament in multiple locales, including early season games in the New York City metro area nine of the last 12 seasons, and now with the inclusion of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge game, and the continuation of old rivalries from the Big East days, it guarantees a couple of true road games each December against quality opponents.
And, besides, despite the losses to Wisconsin, Georgetown and most recently against St. John’s this past Sunday at the Garden, this team did win the Battle 4 Atlantis against tough competition in Connecticut and Texas A&M (both hovering at the bottom end of the Top 25 this week), and now has three more opportunities to hone its game against less talented teams before a tough test to start the ACC portion of the season at Pitt’s Petersen Events Center on Dec. 30, the originally thought of start date to Mike Hopkins turn in the spotlight.
With almost a week off between games while navigating around final exams and the end of an academic semester, the players can only hope the shots go down consistently from a variety of sources, as they hope to avoid falling behind early, and pick up their play defensively to trigger an occasional faster pace of play.
“Just stay together, really,” Trevor Cooney said following the SJU loss when asked about where the team goes from here after dropping three of its last four games. “It’s a long season. You’re going to have stretches where there’s going to be ups, and there’s going to be some downs. This is a young group, and Mike (Gbinije) and I, and DC (Dajuan Coleman) also, have to be great leaders. Everyone has to be ready for a great week of practice (in and around academic schedules), and that helps you to get better.”
This year’s dual head coached team is an interesting blend of young and old, senior guards, or in this case graduate students Gbinije and Cooney in the backcourt filling the adage that experienced guard play is the key to winning post season games, along with senior Coleman, a continuing work
in progress that’s going in the right direction underneath, contrasting with freshmen Tyler Lydon, Malachi Richardson, and Frank Howard who are all expected to keep improving right up to ACC Tournament time, but have certainly showed inconsistently 10 games into their college careers.
Gbinije, for one, however, has stood out with his reliability and clutch play adding up to a team leading 19.8 ppg and 50% plus outside shooting, in a season marked by some long stretches of long range shooting ineptitude.
“We need Mike to be the alpha dog, the alpha male,” Hopkins said Sunday after finishing his third head coaching fill-in game for Boeheim. “He’s been that all year for us. He’s been incredible; he was incredible against (St. John’s). We need the other guys to step up and make some shots.”
So on that “S” subject – shooting, from both afar (36.8% from three) and the free throw line (69.4%), after draining a game high 21 points in the 12 point defeat to the Red Storm, what was Gbinije’s somewhat obvious answer when quizzed on exactly what the players will be working on during this week’s longer than normal stretch between games?
“Our shooting,” he said definitively while tempering his remark with a smile and chuckle. “We have time to reflect, we’re not going to be playing any games, so it’s a time to figure out who we are as a team and as individuals, and hopefully we can turn this (losing three of the last four) around.”
At this current pace in a 31 game season, SU could conceivably end up in anywhere in the 23-8, 22-9, to 21-10 range for a final W/L record by splitting its ACC draw, with a post season path obviously related to which teams the Orange beat in the whirlwind 18 league games including home-and-home series with current No. 11 North Carolina and Florida State.
“We’ve just got to get back into the gym and get better,” Hopkins said Sunday sounding exactly like his currently NCAA handcuffed longtime mentor. “We’ve got to get better both offensively and defensively.”