Nearly six months after their 2013-14 campaign ended in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, the Syracuse Orange opened the 2014-15 season with Kennesaw State on Friday night, beating the Owls 89-42 in front of 22,833 attendees at the Carrier Dome.
Syracuse got contributions from all over in a 47-point blowout of Kennesaw State on Friday night.
And even against a team that went 6-25 a season ago and finished dead last in the Atlantic Sun Conference, it was damn-near impossible -- if you're a Syracuse fan -- not to be thrilled to officially welcome back SU basketball. In the midst of a bowl-less football season, Orange fans need a reason for excitement, and that's what Friday night provided.
"It feels good to go out there and come up with a win," point guard Kaleb Joseph said afterwards. "I think overall the team played real well. We got a lot of good shots for guys, we pushed the ball in transition real well, and the result was a (win). So I can't complain."
Syracuse didn't waste much time before it pulled away from the Owls, thanks in part to an early lift from the two freshmen. With the Orange leading 9-7 just eight minutes in, Kennesaw State's Orlando Coleman missed an uncontested layup. Joseph grabbed the rebound, pushed the ball up court, and found Chris McCullough in transition for an easy but momentum-turning dunk. From there, Syracuse never looked back, stretching its lead to as many as 25 points in the first half and to as many as 48 in the second half.
"I thought our defense was good the whole game. I think in the first half, we were missing a lot of shots around the basket. We were a little anxious, rushing a little bit," head coach Jim Boeheim said. "In the second half, we slowed down, got in the ball in really, basically the same places and just finished. And once we finished inside, we got some open looks from the perimeter and made those. First game, you're going to make some mistakes. Hopefully we'll learn from them and get back here Sunday."
As they coasted to the easy win, the Orange were without guard Michael Gbinije, who sat on the bench in street clothes. Boeheim, who has hinted that Gbinije will see the most minutes of any bench player this season, refused to discuss why the junior didn't dress, simply saying that "he'll be back Sunday."
In Gbinije's absence, Syracuse may have found its next-best bench player: B.J. Johnson. Johnson, who played minimally last season, finished with 19 points, eight rebounds, and four assists off the pine. He also had two of just four made three-pointers by Syracuse. It's only one game, but another consistent scoring option would be immense for the Orange, who lost three of their four leading scorers (Tyler Ennis, C.J. Fair, and Jerami Grant) from last year's team.
"I definitely knew that with Mike being out, somebody else was going to have to step up, so I tried to make the most of it," Johnson would say. "After you knock down a few shots, the basket looks like a big ocean. I think after I hit a couple, I felt good and I felt like every one after that was going in."
Only Rakeem Christmas, one of two returning starters from last year's team, one-upped B.J. Johnson in the scoring department. Despite finding himself in early foul trouble, Christmas scored a game-high 21 points and had nine rebounds, just missing a double-double. (To put his performance into some perspective: Rak scored in double figures only five times last season, and he never scored more than 15 points in a single game.)
Trevor Cooney, the other returning starter, had his moments, too. He went 5-of-7 and hit one of his two tries from beyond the arc. After struggling with his shot in the exhibition games, Cooney seemed relieved to make that trey, even pumping his fist as he ran back on defense. That was despite Syracuse leading by 45 with just under four minutes to play.
Tonight also marked the first regular season collegiate game for Joseph and McCullough, Syracuse's four and five-star recruits, respectively, from the class of 2014. Joseph appeared to experience some jitters and turned the ball over four times -- though he did finish with a game-high six assists and two steals. As for McCullough, the forward had one of Syracuse's two double-doubles (Tyler Roberson had the other), scoring 16 points and pulling down 11 rebounds.
"First regular season game, it was pretty good, good experience," McCullough said. "My family was here, we played hard, we played tough, and got the win."
It won't be long until McCullough gets his second regular season Carrier Dome experience. The Orange next play on Sunday, when they host Hampton at 4:00 p.m. And good news: you don't have to watch the action on ESPN3! The game will be televised from the Dome on ESPNU.