Orange Watch: Syracuse basketball see-sawing between NCAA and NIT finish

Richardson is now officially an NBA player
Strong defense, rebounding, and varied offensive production has propelled Malachi Richardson and the Orange to a three game ACC winning streak

Item: An impressive first-ever victory in hallowed Cameron Indoor Stadium edging Duke Monday night has quickly turned around the fortunes of an Orange team that’s been climbing out of an initial 0-4 ACC hole. However, if (still a big “if”) Mother Nature disrupts Saturday’s game at Virginia (12:00 p.m. ET / ESPN) with the current likelihood of “significant snowfall” predicted by Charlottesville-area meteorologists, then it would turn out to be a 10 day break before Syracuse resumes play a week from Thursday hosting Notre Dame, continuing its quest to move up the conference standings.

As we wrote about this built-in, unusual two coach season following the first exhibition game victory against Le Moyne back in early November, the one main difference turned out to be the NCAA changing the rules as the season had already gotten underway, providing a scant 48 hours notice to the program on Dec. 2 that Boeheim’s suspension could begin immediately, with the renewal of the Georgetown rivalry only days away in D.C., instead of the eight week cushion the program was expecting before the mandatory period of non-communications with the boss.

After slogging through disappointing defeats to their former Big East brothers the Hoyas and a week later embarrassingly to St. John’s, along with the two tough ACC road games at nationally-ranked Pitt and Miami and letting one slip away in overtime versus Clemson, the abnormal situation for Mike Hopkins happened so quickly, he suddenly had to carry out the role of “substitute teacher” using the play book of his boss, as opposed to the nine games serving as an audition of his head coaching abilities because after all, as Boeheim declared, it was still “my team.”

» Related: Michael Gbinije finally enjoys satisfying return to Cameron Indoor Stadium

And his team, after playing more talented No. 2 (this week) North Carolina tough in his return, Jan. 9, has gotten enough offensive production from various sources, strong rebounding (Tyler Roberson), and most importantly playing the kind of zone defense in its subsequent three game winning streak that was always expected to be an annual difference maker in league play, to turn this stretch of the season into a positive run.

“That’s the difference where we’re at now, and where we were prior to those three games,” Boeheim said after his second win against longtime friend and colleague Mike Krzyzewski, and alluding to playing much better defense in victories over Boston College (40 points), Wake Forest (55) and Duke (62).

With a season-long glaring hole in the middle at both ends of the court, opponents with a strong inside game will continue to get the ball underneath for close shots. To counter inside penetration the defense has to stop the outside shot, particularly in a college game that has become so reliant on hoisting up the three especially by teams making a comeback, so when the 2-3 zone is active it’s noticeable.

“We can still get better,” Boeheim philosophized after the Duke victory in lamenting a season-long streaky offense that needs to consistently match up with the improved defensive and rebounding efforts the rest of the way to compete for an NCAA berth. “We’re going to have to (get better). We still have a long way to go and a lot of tough games ahead of us.”

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About Brad Bierman 848 Articles
Now in his sixth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.