Let’s get one quick note out of the way: with a 70-56 win over Boston College, Syracuse University improved to 16-8 overall this season. That’s important, because with 31 games on the schedule, it guarantees that no matter what happens the rest of the season, Jim Boeheim will continue his streak of never having had a losing record. Not that a losing record was ever really in play, but considering how this year has played out it’s nice to get that out of the way up front.
Now, on to the more important stuff. In particular, let’s talk about something that absolutely no one in the world could have predicted: Rakeem Christmas was just 3-for-8 from the field, finishing with only seven points, and Syracuse still won the game going away.
Granted, this came against a Boston College team that’s now just 9-14 overall this season and has only one ACC victory in the 2014-2015. Still, the win is more impressive when you consider the fact that Jim Boeheim’s squad, so thin in terms of depth and scoring production all year, could withstand what was, without question, the worst performance of the year for Rakeem Christmas and still win the game going away.
So, how did that happen, exactly?
For starters, Michael Gbinije continues his quiet growth into becoming a burgeoning star. The 6-foot-7 swingman has been outstanding of late, scoring at least 16 points in each of the last four games. Tonight he proved that he apparently really likes beating Boston College, following up a 17 point, eight rebound performance in the first meeting between the two teams with a 21 point, seven board, four assist output tonight. Early on when it was becoming more and more clear that Rakeem was going to struggle as BC swarmed the post every time he touched the ball, it was Gbinije who stepped up and made some big buckets both in the lane and on the perimeter.
But the biggest story – the one alluded to in the headline of this article – is the play of Kaleb Joseph and BJ Johnson. Joseph was an incredible 7-of-7 from the field, finishing with 14 points and four assists, and Johnson came off the bench to knock down four threes, on his way to 12 points. Now, Johnson wasn’t exactly perfect. He hit two threes early, skyrocketing his confidence to the point where he was a little too quick on the trigger, and finished the game shooting just 4-of-12 from deep and 4-of-13 overall. He also grabbed four rebounds and blocked two shots.
The more important part than his misses, though, are those four makes. For the first time since the season opener against Kennesaw State, Johnson looked comfortable shooting the basketball. It helped that Boeheim seemed to have Tyler Roberson in the doghouse all night, meaning Johnson had the green light to pull the trigger without fear of being yanked. His defense was decent enough to keep him on the floor, though the Syracuse defense in general was at times more than a little suspect.
Indeed, the poor perimeter defense in the first half was a pretty substantial concern, with shooters being left far too open, far too often, into the second half. But in the end, Syracuse’s superior talent, size, and athleticism won out, with multiple highlight reel dunks emphasizing the victory. Kaleb Joseph’s two rim rockers were the most impressive, if only because they were coming from a young guy who has looked tentative most of the year, and you could almost feel him taking his frustration out on the rim on both of them. This one in particular:
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter that this game wasn’t particularly pleasant to watch. There was a definite lack of energy in the building thanks to the noticeably small crowd, and the lack of energy carried over to the court for most of the first half. By the time Syracuse got rolling in the second half, it was thanks largely to the fact that Boston College basically stopped playing defense. Lanes were opening like the Red Sea for Moses, and guys like Gbinije and Joseph were simply taking advantage.
Still, this deep into the season you really have to watch these games with an eye toward the future. That seems unfair to a guy who has worked as hard as Rakeem Christmas, but with no postseason coming for Syracuse and only seven more games on the schedule, we’re all going to be looking for flashes from the younger, more inexperienced players on the team. And tonight, there were some pretty solid flashes from Joseph and Johnson – Joseph, in particular.
I don’t think scoring has ever really been an issue for Kaleb Joseph, personally. He’s always demonstrated a nice ability to finish in the lane and hit from 15 feet and in. He’s just been taken to task by Boeheim for some of his mistakes, and for much of the year, he’s simply looked scared to shoot the ball. Whenever he finally starts to assert himself, however, he flashes the athleticism that had so many of us excited to begin with. Hopefully, he’ll regain some confidence in his jumper, because once he starts knocking down a few three pointers, he could be a very dangerous offensive weapon for the Orange moving forward.
Defense…well, that’s another story. He still needs a lot of work there, and his handle could stand to be tightened. He also lacks ideal court awareness, all too often failing to sense defenders coming from behind to poke the ball loose. But hey, we’re taking baby steps. We’re focusing on the positives. And tonight, there were a hell of a lot of positives from Joseph, as well as from Johnson. Gbinije, meanwhile, is putting himself in position to be an absolute star next season, once he’s the go-to weapon on offense.
Tonight’s win over Boston College wasn’t the prettiest victory in Jim Boeheim’s career, and it was far from the most meaningful. But there were a lot of positive signs in the second half, and plenty of evidence that, hey – maybe the kids are alright, after all.