Well, that was an ordeal. It could have been a heck of a lot easier, but at this point I suppose a win is a win is a win for this team, particularly given some of the things that went horribly wrong throughout the game. Michael Gbinije got hurt, Chris McCullough fouled out after having been pretty much a non-factor, and Kaleb Joseph flirted with double digit turnovers. Yet Syracuse still managed to come away with a win over an annoyingly pesky Louisiana Tech team, winning 71-69 to improve to 6-3 on the year. Thank you, Rakeem Christmas, for delivering a present a week and a half early with your game winner.
Let’s get this part out of the way: this Louisiana Tech team looks like the kind of squad that could narrowly earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament, and then give some three or four seed one hell of a difficult first round game. They’re relentless with their pressure defense, they can run, and while they didn’t shoot particularly well from the perimeter today, they can knock down shots. If they could actually rebound at all, they’d be one very dangerous team come March Madness.
There were a lot of things that jump out in terms of stuff you just hate to see as a Syracuse fan. First of all, the lack of depth became excruciatingly apparent as both Rakeem Christmas and Chris McCullough got into foul trouble, and Gbinije somehow got banged up, with his status being left mysterious through the second half.
But there were also plenty of things to like, so let’s start with those. First and foremost, we absolutely got the “good” version of Trevor Cooney today, and that was one of the two most important developments throughout the game. Cooney went off for 25 points, hitting 4-of-8 three pointers, but his contributions went far beyond just knocking down jumpers. He set the tone early with a driving basket for the first Syracuse points of the game, and remained aggressive offensively the rest of the game. That’s a massive positive, and hopefully he continues to look to attack rather than just floating around the perimeter.
Even more importantly, though, was his ability to essentially take over point guard duties as Kaleb Joseph struggled against the pressure defense employed by the Bulldogs from start to finish. Louisiana Tech pressed not just after made baskets, but also on misses and turnovers, and Joseph was just completely disoriented and finished the game with eight turnovers. With Gbinije banged up and sitting out the entire second half, Cooney handled the rock very ably against the press. He’s not ever going to be flashy with the ball, but that’s not what Syracuse needs. It was kind of like a “game manger” quarterback situation in football. Just don’t turn the ball over and put us in a position to win. That’s precisely was Cooney was able to do, finishing the game with zero turnovers, while coming away with three steals on defense.
The second big development was the play of Tyler Roberson. Roberson has looked timid and skittish through the majority of his young career, but that wasn’t at all the case today against the Bulldogs. He still needs to work on finishing better, but that was as active and aggressive as Roberson has been in a Syracuse uniform, finishing the game not just with 14 points, but also 17 huge rebounds. Yes, this is a Louisiana Tech team that struggles on the glass, but that doesn’t matter. They’re still an athletic, active team, and Roberson never backed down for a second. This was a huge game for Roberson, who also could have played scared due to his recent nagging injury, but he came to play and was without question one of the team MVP’s today.
So those are the good things. Now, we need to talk about a couple of the bad things that came up today. First and foremost, today really showed that after either Gbinije or Roberson (whichever doesn’t get the start), this team has essentially no bench. BJ Johnson got a lot of minutes today, but that was mainly out of necessity. Johnson really struggled today in all facets of the game. He was 0-for-7 from the field, turned the ball over four times, and really continued to struggle defensively. In fact, all of the Syracuse wings had some issues on defense, often times playing way too high and allowing the Louisiana Tech forwards to slip behind them for easy lobs and backdoor buckets.
Meanwhile, as Kaleb Joseph struggled through his worst game of the year handling the ball, and with Gbinije stuck on the bench due to his injury, Buss Patterson was simply nowhere to be found. If ever there was a time when Jim Boeheim needed to sit Joseph even for a few minutes, it was today once it became clear he was unsure about how to attack the intense full court pressure that Louisiana Tech threw at him all game. The fact that Patterson couldn’t get a single second of run does not bode well moving forward, and the way that Joseph struggled so mightily against the pressure defense makes me fear more than ever playing a team like Louisville.
A win is a win is a win. We had several positives. But we also had a lot of negatives, and more than anything today’s game showed that this Syracuse team has a long way to go before we can even begin thinking about fighting for a bubble spot.