A few days removed from another heart-stopping Syracuse Orange basketball victory, this time against the visiting N.C. State Wolfpack, 56-55, the fan base is still caught in a state of bewilderment—how do these guys keep doing what they're doing? Most importantly, why are they doing it like this?
Against the program which has set the Atlantic Coast Conference record for consecutive wins to start a season (27), the Orange (25-0) struggled in nearly every aspect of basketball. Competing in its third game in seven days, SU seemed a bit off as they battled through a fast-paced contest (something Jim Boeheim's squad hasn't seen since its epic victory over Duke a few weeks back) and tired legs.
Regardless of the struggles, which included shooting just 35 percent from the floor (16 percent from behind the 3-point arc), the No. 1 team in all of the land found a way to win, again, in the closing moments.
Moving forward Syracuse fans are going to hear a lot about how their team maybe overrated—after the No. 3-ranked Florida Gators' road victory at the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday night there was already talk the Billy Donovan-led squad is now the favorite to win the whole thing—and the question: can SU's living-on-the-edge style continue?
First, SU is not overrated. Somehow, someway this team always find a different way to win.
Two Mondays ago, Feb. 3, it was Trevor Cooney coming to the rescue netting a collegiate-best 33 points.
In last Wednesday's buzzer-beating victory, it was Fair and freshmen Tyler Ennis being cold blooded in the final moments, while Saturday featured center Rakeem Christmas being awesome in the midst of a career-best performance—14 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks that featured him going a clutch 6-for-6 from the free-throw line in the final 10 minutes.
One of the most important attributes of being the nation's best team is having different options to win a game, and this Syracuse squad continues to showcase a different tool in its Swiss-army knife with each appearance.
See, what makes Syracuse really good is if one of its tools isn't working that night another one pops up to take its place and do the job. In the case of Saturday, the Orange were working with literally zero of its main cooking knives, as Fair, Grant, Cooney and Ennis were not performing sharply.
How bad were things? Well, this is how Captain Clutch (Ennis) played in the closing moments.
Now, in the defense of Ennis, this was going to happen sometime this century—Tyler Ennis was going to struggle late in a game. Season history had proved to all of us that Ennis was going to be on when his team needed him, and when he wasn't against N.C. State it didn't look or feel like the Orange were going to keep their record of consecutive wins going.
It certainly didn't get any better when plays like the one below were working in favor of the Wolfpack (16-9, 6-6).
Snagging the rebound off the glass was N.C. State's T.J. Warren, the ACC's leading scorer, who played a phenomenal game tallying a game-high 23 points, while snagging four rebounds and three steals.
Overall, Warren, along side freshman teammate Kyle Washington, had the types of performances that usually spell doom for an opposing team. Both players finished the first half with 10 points and were shooting better than 50 percent from the field.
Washington kept momentum on N.C. State's side early in the second half by putting together plays like this:
Meanwhile, Warren put his team on his back by making play after play late in the second half.
Combined, Warren and Washington (14 points) scored 37 of the N.C. State's 55 points. Washington also added 10 rebounds with nine of those coming on the defensive side of the ball.
The pair's play was a big reason why Syracuse trailed a majority of the game, however, there were two other thorns in the Orange's side that made things difficult for the nation's top ranked team.
The first thorn was the pace of play, which was twice as fast as Wednesday's showdown against Pitt. In that game, Syracuse attempted 17 shots in the game's first 20 minutes. Against N.C. State, the Orange put up 34 shots in the first session of play.
(If you're curious, against Notre Dame and Clemson, Syracuse attempted 25 and 26 shots in the first half. So, to say this pace was a bit of a change is an understatement.)
From the 8-minute, 30-second mark of the first half, Syracuse attempted a shot with an average of 23 seconds remaining on the shot clock. In those 14 possessions, there were 16 shots, four of them were made and only three offensive rebounds were snagged (two came on the same play).
If you're thinking, "Well, those shots must have been well defended." Judge for yourself, as some of those attempts are highlighted below:
None of those look too difficult (for our guys at least) right? Cooney is in pretty good rhythm and has solid looks at his 3-pointers; we can all just guess what Ennis was trying to do on his one-on-one transition opportunity; at least Fair hit the rim on his mid-range attempt (how many airballs did he have in this game? Two? Three?); and blahhhhh for the last one.
This gets us to the second thorn in SU's side—fatigue. Jim Boeheim mentioned it in his post-game presser, but after watching this game it sure did look like the six-man-rotation Orange were flat with everything. Three games in seven days, with two of those being physical grinders and this last one being a track meet, is a tough task; especially when all four starters have been asked to play at least 33 minutes during the stretch. The starter which played best Sat., Christmas, was the only one that did not play at least 30 minutes against Clemson last Sunday.
Speaking of Christmas, here's how he helped SU earn another victory:
The hope, according to backup center Baye Moussa Keita, is to have him return this upcoming Wednesday when the Boston College Eagles visit the Carrier Dome. If Keita can't go, it would be nice for SU to start fast, so some bench players can eat-up some minutes because, ideally, the Orange need to be as fresh as possible heading into Saturday's rematch with Duke—a team coming of its third game in five days.
All-in-all, Syracuse, again, found a way to win. Most of the reason should be credited to the defense, which allowed just one N.C. State field goal in the final four minutes of the game. It also sparked this...
Look, everyone wants the Orange to make every shot (especially all of the Cooney brothers). We all just know it ain't going to happen. However, in each game, what will happen is Syracuse will play good defense, and because of that, the Orange will always be in every game. Unfortunately, it also means every game is probably going to be close.
So, do yourself a favor and take some aspirin before the game. It might just save your life.