And with that, both 2014 and the season’s non-conference portion of the Syracuse basketball schedule have come to a close. It wasn’t pretty, but at the end of the day this Syracuse team can’t afford to care about how it wins, just that it wins. With a 61-44 victory over Cornell, the Orange finish up 2014 and head into ACC play with a record of 9-4, which is the record most of us expected following the Michigan game.
It was abundantly clear from the first minute or two of the game that Syracuse would not only win the game, but dominate. The final score probably doesn’t reflect just how much better Syracuse was, because the Orange struggled to knock down open jumpers and the second half saw some serious defensive lapses, but the result was never even remotely in question, even as the Orange looked like they might not even break 20 points in the first half.
The team had a lot of jumpers that seemed to be on target but rimmed out, and once it became clear that there was a lid on the iron, they started pressing a little bit, and some bad shots were the result. Finally, they started working the ball inside and owned a pretty massive advantage in the paint to help them stake a 23-12 halftime lead.
Still, you always have to look at the positives, and the biggest positive tonight was the continued progression of Rakeem Christmas, who was simply unstoppable once the Orange started feeding him the rock repeatedly, particularly in the second half. Christmas finished just short of his third straight double-double, scoring 19 points and grabbing nine boards, and scored in a variety of ways. And really, that’s the most noteworthy thing about Rakeem’s improvement this season: he’s no longer a limited offensive player who can only score on dunks and layups. Instead, he was scoring with either hand and knocking down short jumpers, and even added a 17 footer because, I’m assuming, he likes to show off.
Overall, Christmas finished 9-of-12 from the field, and Cornell simply had no answer for the senior from Philly.
Outside of Christmas, however, there remain some pretty big question marks with this Syracuse team. Trevor Cooney did Trevor Cooney things, knocking down a couple threes and finishing with 14 points, but no one else reached double digits for the Orange. At this point, Christmas and Cooney are basically the only known entities for this Syracuse team, while Michael Gbinije is working his way toward being the third constant in this equation.
But outside of those three, there remains tremendous inconsistency all around. One thing that jumped out about Kaleb Joseph tonight, for example, was his outright reluctance to shoot the basketball. On numerous occasions, he had wide open three point looks but refused to pull the trigger. A few weeks ago, Jim Boeheim called Joseph out for trying to become a long range threat, which at the time seemed like an odd statement since Joseph had hit a couple threes and the rest of the team was struggling mightily from downtown.
Joseph finished with eight points, hitting 4-of-6 shots overall while not attempting any three pointers. He only had two assists, but he also only turned the ball over once. Baby steps, I suppose, but I’m a little nervous about his mindset and lack of offensive aggression at this point, particularly on a night where the rest of the team was struggling to get much offense going, outside of Christmas.
Tyler Roberson continues to show flashes of becoming a very solid player, and in the first half made one of the most impressive offensive moves of his young career, catching the ball at the elbow, taking one dribble, and spinning past a defender for a beautiful left handed finger roll. But his jumper remains inconsistent at best, and he’s still far too indecisive when it comes to the offensive end of the court.
Chris McCullough is, at this point, exactly what we all think he is: a long, athletic, talented kid who just doesn’t have the strength to compete at a consistently high level. Even against a much smaller Cornell squad, he struggled to come down with rebounds now and then, and was pretty invisible on the offensive end. He finished with six points on 3-of-4 shooting, and grabbed seven boards, but both of those numbers could have been better. McCullough recently said he needs to work on being more aggressive, and it looks like that aspect of his game – and demeanor – still needs to be addressed.
And then, there’s Buss Patterson and BJ Johnson. It’s hard to say what can be done with those two guys at this point, since it’s pretty clear that neither is going to offer up much by way of offense at this point. Patterson fired up some of the ugliest three point misses in recent memory, and Johnson continues to look lost on the defensive end, and like McCullough, doesn’t have the strength to compete with more physical players. Patterson did make a couple strong defensive plays, and had some nice passes (finishing with three assists in limited action), but overall he’s just a very limited player in terms of what he can actually offer on a nightly basis.
At the beginning of the year, it looked pretty clear that the team’s biggest deficiency would be its three point shooting, but now it’s becoming more and more evident that the team’s inexperience and lack of depth are going to be far more problematic. Fortunately, experience can be gained pretty rapidly, but with so few scholarship players, and only one or maybe two players ready to contribute off the bench, depth is going to remain a massive issue.
Still, a win is a win. This Cornell team is far from strong, sitting at 6-7 after tonight’s result, but the Big Red have a couple decent players – most notably Shonn Miller, who the ESPN crew repeatedly pointed out is going to be able to transfer for next season and become immediately eligible because he’ll already have his degree. Miller is going to land with a power conference team and be a real contributor, with a solid combination of size (6-foot-7) and skill. If Syracuse had any open spots for next year (that weren’t presumably reserved for Thomas Bryant), I would be awfully interested in seeing him wearing orange next season. He’s a very solid player and is going to be a major plus for a very lucky team next year.
Next up for Syracuse is Virginia Tech at noon on Saturday. The Hokies are 8-5, but have lost to teams like Appalachian State, Northern Iowa, and Radford. This is a game that Syracuse should win, and frankly they’re going to need every win they can muster as they head toward the back half of their ACC slate, with games against Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, Virginia, and Notre Dame looming over the final month (and change) of the season.