Well, that was certainly interesting. I’m not a big believer in moral victories, but for the most part, I can’t help but feel satisfied with the overall performance by this young Syracuse basketball team in a 68-65 road loss at No. 17-ranked Michigan. Yet the frustration is there, because man, that one was right there for the taking, wasn’t it? Unfortunately, the team’s youth reared its ugly head with some horribly timed turnovers, and despite Michigan practically begging the Orange to steal the win in the waning moments, the Wolverines held off the late rally.
At the end of the day, it really did wind up being the turnovers that killed Syracuse, as the Orange gave the ball away 19 times, compared to just seven for Michigan. And let’s be clear, about half of those turnovers could really be best described as given away, as they were often unforced, dumb mistakes. In fact, the two most crucial turnovers in the game came not from Michigan’s defense, but from Syracuse freshman sloppiness. The first was, following a missed free throw, when Chris McCullough snagged the rebound and promptly threw the outlet pass out of bounds. The second was when, after yet another missed free throw from a usually good free throw shooter, Kaleb Joseph pushed the ball down the court and basically dribbled it off of his foot.
The first turnover was a poor and rushed decision from McCullough, but Joseph can’t escape blame either. As a point guard, it’s his job to go back and get the ball, not to run away from the pass in that situation. He has to demand the ball, and learn to bring it confidently up the court and protect it. The second turnover was caused by Joseph’s inability to protect the ball, yes, but in retrospect you also have to wonder why the hell Jim Boeheim didn’t call a timeout there, when it would have made perfect sense. Down one point, in a hostile road environment, with the ball and 10 seconds left and a very young and inexperienced team, a timeout seemed obvious.
Alas, it never came, the ball was given away, and Joseph’s eventual last second heave when the team was down three fell well short.
Still, it’s hard not to look at some of the positives that came from this game. The first was that, at least in the first half, Rakeem Christmas was utterly unstoppable. Michigan simply had no one to defend the senior post player, and in the second half the only way John Beilein was able to slow him down was to double or triple team him whenever he touched the ball. Obviously, Syracuse needed someone to step up offensively with Michigan focusing on taking Christmas out of the game, and someone did. And as it turns out, it was the best possible person to have step up because of what it could potentially mean going forward.
Yes, Syracuse fans, Trevor Cooney is alive. And so, at least tonight, was his three point shooting stroke. After struggling through the first half, Cooney found a rhythm in the second half, scoring eight quick points including two threes to open the half and then adding two more big three pointers down the stretch. Cooney finished the game hitting 4-of-9 threes and scoring a team-best 16 points, and that is absolutely monumental for this team, which entered the game shooting just 19.8% from long range collectively.
Joseph also knocked down a couple three pointers and looked confident in doing so, so if he and Cooney can keep defenses honest it’ll go a very long way toward solving the team’s offensive struggles.
Another positive sign was the play of Chris McCullough down the stretch, after what had started out being by far his worst performance of the year. McCullough was nearly invisible for most of the game, but he came up with some huge plays in the second half, including a crucial offensive board and bucket, followed on the next trip by another board and a kick out to Cooney for a three. We’ll just ignore the unfortunate turnover at the end and focus on the fact that he wound up with 10 points, 12 rebounds, and three assists. If that’s his worst game, we’re in for a hell of a year from the kid.
Other than Michael Gbinije, there wasn’t much by way of a bench for Syracuse, particularly in the second half. Tyler Roberson played but didn’t start, and after starting the game and turning the ball over early, BJ Johnson was banished to the bench for the duration. Buss Patterson played solid defense but didn’t sniff any action in the second half, and with the game on the line, Boeheim stuck with a lineup of Joseph, Cooney, Gbinije, McCullough, and Christmas. In other words, the exact lineup a lot of us were probably predicting would be on the floor in crunch time way back in the boring summer months when we were still thinking that the Syracuse football team might have a decent year.
There were some things to like tonight, for sure, but it’s hard to get overly excited about a loss, even if the team did finally start knocking down some shots and making some plays that showed they have the capability of actually chipping away at a double digit (in this case, 10 points) deficit. But the rebounding still needs to improve, as Michigan pounded the offensive glass for 17 boards, and the defensive rotations still need work. Too often, Michigan shooters were left open because of poor closeouts, bad rotations, or Syracuse defenders simply being out of position to get a hand in the shooter’s face, and in the second half the Wolverines made the Orange pay.
Still, this is a young team. A very, very, young team, and again – growing pains are to be expected. Turnovers, defensive lapses, and even giving up offensive boards are all side effects of being inexperienced, and the progress shown tonight makes me believe that they are things that, eventually, the team can remedy. This really looks like a team that will scare a lot of higher ranked folks when February rolls around. So while giving the ball away 19 times and hitting just 6-of-17 threes isn’t exactly stellar, the fact that the Orange were able to go on the road, make those kinds of mistakes, and still be in position to win in the final minute over a strong, well coached opponent?
Well, for now I’ll take it. I won’t enjoy it, I won’t like it, but I’ll take it. It’s a long season, and I saw a lot of progress.