Syracuse basketball’s veteran leadership starting to show

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Jan 19, 2019; Syracuse, NY, USA; Syracuse Orange guard Frank Howard (23) looks to drive against Pittsburgh Panthers guard Trey McGowens (2) during the first half of the Orange's 74-63 win over Pitt at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

It’s been a topsy-turvy kinda week for the Syracuse Orange basketball team.

Last Saturday, they put together a disappointing result against Georgia Tech, losing by 14 at home to a team that has given them fits the past few years. The Orange have lost two in a row to the Yellow Jackets and have gone just 3-3 in their last six games against them. And, if you throw out the 90-point output in a win against Georgia Tech in 2017, Syracuse has averaged 56.2 points per game against Georgia Tech in the other five games in that stretch.

Monday, Syracuse pulled of a 95-91 overtime win AT Duke, the No. 1 team in the country. As much as the Orange have struggled against the Yellow Jackets in recent history, they have fared decently against the Blue Devils, the cream of the Atlantic Coast Conference crop. Since joining the ACC in the 2013-14 season, Syracuse has gone 4-5 against Duke. How many other teams can say they’ve beaten Mike Krzyzewski’s team four times in the last six seasons? Not many.

Typical bubble team, right? Overachieve on certain days, underachieve on others.

The Orange then took care of Pittsburgh by 11 points at home this past Saturday. But, no matter how likely the win over Pitt was or how unlikely the win at Duke may have been, the things we’ve seen from Syracuse the past two games are the kind of things Syracuse fans expected from a veteran-laden team.

With all five starters returning from last year’s Sweet 16 team, Syracuse was expected to be a team that would not rattle under tough circumstances. I would think playing on the road against the top team in the country that possesses three freshmen who could end up being the Top 3 picks in June’s NBA Draft qualifies as “tough circumstances.”

» Related: Tyus Battle’s 22 points powers Syracuse basketball past Pittsburgh

Say what you will about Duke being without Cam Reddish (illness) for the entire game and Tre Jones (shoulder) missing most of the game. Any team with Zion Williamson (35 points) that is favored by 17.5 points presents a formidable challenge.

But, there was Tyus Battle (32 points) matching Williamson basket for basket. There was Frank Howard (16 points, six rebounds, five assists) finally looking like the Howard of last season. And Paschal Chukwu (10 points, 18 rebounds) had risen off the bench to provide the inside presence coach Jim Boeheim has been asking for all season long.

In Syracuse’s workmanlike win over Pitt, Battle (22 points) once again provided the offensive punch. Chukwu returned to the starting lineup and supplied 11 more rebounds, giving him 29 in his last two games. He also blocked three shots for the third straight game, giving him as many blocks in his last three games as he had in his previous eight games. And Marek Dolezaj didn’t sulk on the bench, instead further cementing his status as a jack-of-all-trades with four points, six rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks.

With the veterans leading the way, it allowed everything else to fit into place for the whole team. While Syracuse has shot just 31 percent from beyond the three-point line for the season, the Orange made 12 of 26 attempts (46 percent) against Duke and 11 of 25 three-pointers (44 percent) against Pitt. Rather than running a three-man weave outside the three point line, the Orange used its success from beyond the arc to open up backdoor passes that led to easy baskets inside.

There has been a comfort level that Syracuse has displayed the last two games that has the look of a team that was ranked 16th to begin the season. It’s the kind of veteran leadership that can lead a team deep into March. The Orange faithful are hoping for a lot more of what they have seen lately and a little less topsy-turvy stuff throughout the rest of the season.

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Matt Dagostino
About Matt Dagostino 73 Articles
Matt currently works as an on-air talent and producer for Turner Sports in Atlanta, where he is from. Among his responsibilities are voicing over highlights for NCAA.com, NBA.com, WNBA.com, and PGA.com. He has also served as an associate producer for TNT’s coverage of the NBA Playoffs and TBS’s coverage of the MLB Postseason. Matt also has experience as a minor league baseball play-by-play announcer and as a PA announcer in D-I college athletics. Matt graduated from Syracuse University in 2005. Follow him on Twitter @MattDags28.