Let’s be honest, we probably all knew a game like this was coming. The hot shooting was due to come to an end, and with the loss of Chris McCullough, the lack of depth and scoring options were almost certainly going to come back to bite the Orange eventually. We just didn’t necessarily expect a performance this bad, against a team this mediocre. At the end of the day, the final score of 66-53 doesn’t even illustrate just how bad Syracuse was in this game.
But first things first, we all have to stop and give credit to Rakeem Christmas for almost single-handedly keeping Syracuse at least moderately competitive, even though the game was really never in much doubt starting early on. Christmas was good enough offensively that it makes you wonder why the Orange didn’t consistently pound the ball inside time after time, particularly when they were struggling to get anything going offensively in the first half. Christmas finished with 21 points and 10 boards, another strong effort from the senior whose teammates just could not rise to the occasion and match his effort.
And let’s talk about that first half for a moment, even though we’d all like to forget it ever happened. Syracuse came out flat and looked extremely lackadaisical at both ends of the court, letting Clemson pound the offensive glass early and making sloppy decisions with the basketball on offense. The Orange also settled for far too many jump shots, and when it was clear they weren’t going to be falling, they kept right on heaving…and missing. I’ll be honest, I was pretty nervous about how the team would shoot the ball on the first three point attempt by Trevor Cooney. He’s been so good lately at catching the ball in rhythm and stepping into his shot that it was disconcerting when he came around a screen and launched a long, off balance, fadeaway three on his first touch.
Naturally, it missed. That set a bad tone, and the trend started becoming “let’s hoist bad jumpers” when Buss Patterson got into the game. Michael Gbinije wasn’t immune, either, though he wound up being mostly invisible for the duration of the game. He finished with 11 points, but that number is pretty deceptive considering the painfully long stretches in which you almost just kind of forgot he was on the floor.
At the other end of the floor, Clemson wasn’t missing their threes the way that Syracuse was. The Tigers pounded the offensive boards for second chance points, some of which came on kickouts for threes and jumpers. If the Orange could have simply protected the defensive glass, the halftime deficit wouldn’t have been nearly as large, but instead the Tigers got after it on the boards and led 39-18 at the break.
While Rakeem Christmas was the only option on offense early on, it was Tyler Roberson trying his hardest to get on the backboard, but his effort wasn’t nearly enough. Jaron Blossomgame and his Clemson cohorts were relentless on the glass, and Syracuse did themselves few favors by failing to secure rebounds, resulting in the ball getting bounced around and winding up in the hands of the Tigers.
Outside of Roberson and Christmas, the Orange were putrid on the glass. The duo combined for 23 of the team’s 30 rebounds, which if you couldn’t tell, is absolutely abysmal. The Orange need someone else to step up, because you’re not going to win many games in which your third leading rebounder only has two boards.
One of the few pieces of silver lining, other than the continued great effort on offense by Rakeem Christmas, was that Kaleb Joseph showed a few signs of life on offense. After passing up a lot of open shots, and missing the few he took in the first half, he actually started to grow a little more confident in the second half and knocked down a couple baskets both driving to the hoop and pulling up for jumpers around the paint. It was a nice sign for a kid who has looked scared to shoot the ball lately, but his suspect defense and occasional indecision handling the ball continue to be a concern.
The first half of this game will go down as one of the worst in Syracuse basketball history. The Orange started to play a bit better after the break, but when two of your three best scorers are pretty much nonexistent for the vast majority of the game, you’re not going to be very successful. Syracuse simply cannot afford to have both Cooney and Gbinije play so poorly during the same game, because when that happens the Orange really have no hope of pulling out a victory – particularly on the road, against a feisty opponent like Clemson. It’s a recipe for disaster, and a disaster is pretty much what we witnessed today in South Carolina.
The good news is that the team didn’t quit, and kept fighting and scraping to try to get back into the game until the very end. The bad news is that even though Clemson did everything to let them for a long second half stretch, the Orange could never come close to closing the gap.
Syracuse now sits at 13-5 and falls from the unbeaten ranks in the ACC, and we will simply have to wait and see if the Orange are able to bounce back at home against BC (8-8 following a loss today against Virginia) and Miami (12-5 after a narrow defeat at Notre Dame) next week.