I’m going to toss this out there right now: there aren’t really many ways that I can relate Syracuse basketball to the show Breaking Bad. There aren’t a lot of characters we can easily compare and contrast to the Syracuse basketball program or college hoops in general – though I think a case could be made that Gus Fring is similar to John Calipari, with Worldwide Wes serving as his Mike Ehrmantraut.
But as far as Syracuse is concerned, there are no easy parallels. But that’s not going to stop me from delivering a clip from the show, which relates to the current state of affairs for the Orange more than many probably realize. In this scene, we see our antihero, Walter White, teaching his chemistry class, back before he became Heisenberg.
Of course, you can see where I’m going with this, because Walt is a chemist. He’s a brilliant chemist, in fact; one of the best in the entirety of the southwest United States, if not the country. Chemistry is crucial to all things, and this year’s Syracuse basketball team is no exception.
But chemistry is a fickle animal, easily thrown out of balance if all of the elements aren’t working on cohesion. And sometimes, that chemistry can become disrupted, just as we see one individual student disrupting Walt’s class as he extolls the virtues of chemistry to his class of largely disinterested students. What could have been a special, engaging lesson on chemistry is derailed by a single distraction, and Walt’s passion for the subject drains right out of him.
That was a long introduction, and you’re probably not going to like the fact that I’m not going to follow it up with any of the behind the scenes things that have led me down this tangent. All I will say, again, is that chemistry is crucial. It’s been out of whack all season for Syracuse.
Last night, for the first time all year, it appeared that all of the correct elements were working in cohesion. Chemistry was working its magic, and it resulted in a 70-55 victory over a Miami team that had come into the game on the brink of entering the top 25 and boasting a record of 11-2.
Sometimes, the fewer elements that enter the mix, the better. It’s not what a lot of people want from Syracuse basketball, particularly when so many – myself included – were talking about this being one of the deepest rosters Jim Boeheim has had in years. But at least for the time being, the best mix is clearly limited to about a 6.5 man rotation, with elements that want to work together to form something greater than themselves.
And that rotation consisted of John Gillon, Tyus Battle, Andrew White, Tyler Roberson, and Tyler Lydon almost exclusively, with Taurean Thompson getting some run until foul trouble and his continued struggles on defense led to Boeheim sticking with those first five almost exclusively.
Dajuan Coleman barely played, the same for Frank Howard, who had started all 14 games before last night. For Coleman, such a significant dip in playing time is a bit heartbreaking. Jim Boeheim has alluded to the fact that his knees and his body just aren’t up to the task of logging heavy minutes, and it’s really a shame. Coleman has worked his ass off to get back to playing shape, but for all his heart, his knees simply can’t keep up.
Thompson, meanwhile, is still a tantalizing offensive prospect: at 6-foot-10, he’s got a solid handle for his size, good (not great) athleticism, and a vastly better jump shot and array of post moves than any of us could have realistically expected. It’s clear that Boeheim wants desperately to play his talented freshman, but he continues to look lost in the 2-3 zone.
So last night, we were left watching five players compete for nearly the entire game. And it was the best that the team has looked all season.
For the first time in a long time, it looked like there were five guys on the court who actually wanted to compete, and who actually liked playing together. Sure, there were still some questionable shot choices and some miscommunications, but the ball movement was better and the players more unselfish than they had been virtually all year.
Guys competed on the glass. They busted their asses making defensive rotations, leading to six steals for the Orange and 15 turnovers for Miami. John Gillon and Tyus Battle each had two steals at the top of the zone, and Battle in particularly looked as disruptive on defense as he has all year.
Andrew White showed that he can be more than just a spot up jump shooter, throwing himself around on the glass and hauling down 10 rebounds – and that’s not mentioning his 22 points. Tyler Lydon had a quiet first half, only taking two shots and scoring five points, but came alive in the second half. As Syracuse.com’s Donna Ditota pointed out early in the second half on Twitter, Lydon was frequently getting the ball in good position at the high post but looked hesitant to actually do anything other than kick it back out.
But then, Lydon took a confident jumper from 17 feet. It missed, but it was the first real aggression he’d shown on offense all night. The next time he got the ball in the high post, he turned and immediately drove to the bucket for a layup. He swished a 15 footer, and repeatedly put the ball on the floor, looking for his offense and finishing with 20 points in the game – 15 of which came once he realized what a perfect fit he is, and how much damage he can do, at the high post.
Tyler Roberson, who seemed on the verge of becoming forever banished to the bench, looked reinvigorated. He scored nine points and secured six rebounds – paltry numbers by his standards but vastly better than his most recent showings. If he remains engaged (and it looks like he’ll need to be, considering this new, short rotation), it’ll be a major spark for the Orange, particularly as he rotates in and out with Thompson.
And John Gillon, the graduate transfer from Colorado State, looked as confident running the point as he has all season. Yes, he made some mistakes. He over-dribbled a few times and turned the ball over five times in the game, but for the first time all season he knew that a mistake wouldn’t lead to his being immediately yanked from the lineup.
It’s his show to run now, and he firmly embraced it. Setting aside a few of the turnovers, he had some truly dazzling passes, racking up 11 assists in the game and adding eight points – including a beautiful runner in the lane late in the game to help seal the victory. It was the perfect capper on his performance, dishing out double-digit assists and knocking down that floater like Sherm Douglas used to.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Syracuse isn’t going to play this well all season. They’re not going to shoot nearly 57% from the field, or 42% from three, and they especially won’t hit nearly 86% of their free throw attempts in many games the rest of the way. But for the first time in a month, there were serious signs of life.
Jim Boeheim has, at long last, seemingly found a rotation that works. It’s a rotation nearly as short as John Gillon himself, but as Gillon showed last night, just because you’re short doesn’t mean you can’t be effective.