The Monday night dispatching of Coppin State marked the completion of the Syracuse Orange’s non-conference portion of the schedule.
With the exception of a 60-foot heave at the buzzer, Jim Boeheim’s team emerged with a mark of 12-1 highlighted by wins over ranked foes Florida, Kansas, and Memphis. Not too shabby for a team that supposedly doesn’t like to do the heavy lifting outside of Big East play.
From here on out, only conference games remain. The next time they take to the hardwood will be Dec. 30 when the Seton Hall Pirates pay a visit to the Carrier Dome.
So before the Orange embarks on what is sure to be a two month-long street fight in a loaded Big East, let’s take a look to see who is responsible for getting them to this point and what we’ve learned about this team.
First and foremost, Syracuse’s success begins and ends with Jonny Flynn. The Niagara native might be the smallest player in the lineup but there’s no doubting he has the biggest heart.
Flynn’s play through the first portion of the campaign has vaulted him into the discussion of best point guard in the country right alongside Ty Lawson, Stephen Curry, Darren Collison, and A.J. Price.
He leads the Orange with 17.5 points and five assists per game and is shooting 37 percent from three. But his intangibles just might help his team the most.
What you won’t find in the box score is the tenacious, ball hawking defense Flynn plays whether it is in one of the guard positions in the 2-3 zone or the in your face pressure he applies in man to man.
And make no mistake, Flynn lives for the big moment. His three-pointer forced overtime against Kansas and he hit another crucial three to put SU in a position to tie Cleveland State before the Orange eventually lost.
There’s a reason some people refer to Paul Harris as “Do It All Paul.” The former high school teammate of Flynn helps his team win in so many ways.
Harris, the third leading scorer for SU at 13.6 points per game, is a menace on the back boards. The 6’4” junior hauls down a team leading 8.8 rebounds per game. Combine his tenacity to pursue missed shots along with his Herculean build, and his rebounding prowess should come as no surprise.
Whether posting up or driving to the basket, Harris is extremely difficult to guard due to his tremendous strength.
One aspect of his game that has improved is his mid-range jump shot. While by no means a dead-eye marksman from three, Harris has improved his stroke enough to make defenders pay for slacking off of him.
Andy Rautins missed all of last season with a torn ACL. This year, his three-point shot has been MIA. That is, until last night.
The junior erupted to make nine of 16 shots from downtown. Rautins is connecting on 35 percent of his threes through Syracuse’s first 13 games.
Despite his struggles, Rautins has come up big when the Orange has needed him most. In their four highest profile games (Florida, Kansas, Virginia, and Memphis), he’s hit 14 of 31 triples, or a rate of 45 percent. Regardless of how long teammate Eric Devendorf is suspended, Syracuse needs Rautins to regain his stroke. Hopefully for the Orange, last night will be a sign of things to come.
Say what you will about Devendorf, currently on suspension for an altercation with another student, but he’s an important part of the Syracuse offense.
The Bay City, MI native can beat you in a variety of ways whether it is with his silky smooth jump shot or his ability to drive to the basket and finish, especially with his left hand. Devendorf also provides the Orange with another ball handler in addition to dishing out about 3.5 assist per game.
Anchoring the back line of the 2-3 zone and providing an intimidating, physical presence is junior Arinze Onuaku. He’s the fourth Orange to score in double figures at 12.2 points while snagging 7.6 caroms.
You want shot selection? Ask Onuaku. He leads the nation in field goal percentage, thanks in large part to dunks, put backs, and an assortment of close range shots, at an astounding 74.7 percent.
If there’s a knock on Onuaku, it is definitely his free throw shooting. He shoots an awful 46 percent from the charity stripe.
One player that’s beginning to come into his own is 6’9” forward Rick Jackson. Having replaced Kristof Ongenaet in the starting lineup the last two games, Jackson is averaging 12 points and 6.5 boards in those contests.
If Jackson can maintain that type of production, he’ll combine with Onuaku and Harris to form a very intimidating and productive front line, which in turn will make it easier for the likes of Rautins, Devendorf, and Flynn to get clean looks from the perimeter.
One player who’s making an impact as a freshman—not exactly the easiest thing to do on a Jim Boeheim team—is 6’7” forward Kris Joseph. He averages a little less than 19 minutes per game while chipping in five points and 3.2 rebounds.
As productive as Joseph has been in other aspects of the game, foul shooting has not been one of them. With an average of 38.5 percent, it goes without saying that the freshman will not be on the floor during crunch time.
But Joseph is the prototypical Jim Boeheim player. He’s long, lanky, and can run. His length allows him to be a perfect fit for the back line of the zone. And if his coach ever went with a big lineup and installed Joseph at one of the guard positions, his reach and size would surely wreak havoc on shooters.
Joseph seems to be a perfect fit for the type of system Syracuse runs and his productivity in his freshman year bodes well for his future. Look for Joseph to turn into quite the player in years to come.
Anyone that follows Syracuse basketball knows the 2-3 zone has been the defense of choice for well over a decade now. But this season, it appears to be hit or miss. Memphis shot a horrific 21 percent from three yet teams such as Coppin State and Cornell have both tickled the twine at over 40 percent.
In years past, when the zone wasn’t clicking, Syracuse was sure to be in for a long night. Not this year.
The 2008-09 version of the Orange is built for man-to-man. Thanks to the return of Rautins and Devendorf from injury, Syracuse is much deeper this year and Boeheim has been unleashing the hounds.
Led by Flynn and Harris, two players who both relish the challenge of stopping their man, Syracuse has played more than its share of man defense. The depth and athleticism of this year’s squad is sure to come in handy as conference play approaches.
Throughout the years, Syracuse has been stereotyped as team that can’t hit their free throws. Fairly or not, this year’s performance has done nothing to shed that opinion.
The Orange is shooting a meager 66 percent from the free throw line. In their game against Memphis last Saturday, they managed only 12 makes in 46 attempts. In a game Syracuse won by seven points, if they made their season average, the margin of victory would’ve been double figures and the game would’ve been put away quicker than it was.
Unless they drastically improve their free throw shooting, such a poor performance is sure to cost them a game or two in the rugged Big East.
But on a brighter side, if you had to pick one word to describe this year’s version of the Orange, how about resilient? Syracuse has been down double digits against Kansas, Virginia, Cornell, (yes, that does say Cornell), and Memphis and stormed back to win all four games. The deficit against Cornell was 16, the Kansas game was in Kansas City, and Memphis was a true road game.
To quote the great Bill Raftery: “Onions!”
That resiliency should serve Syracuse well as they enter conference play. And they will need every ounce of it during a four game stretch in January when they play at Georgetown, host Notre Dame, venture to Pittsburgh, and return home to play Louisville all in an 11-day stretch.
What the rest of the season holds for the Orange is anyone’s guess but based on what we’ve see so far, they should be able to play with anyone in the Big East and they seem more than capable of ending their two-year NCAA tournament draught.