Syracuse capped off an exceptional run in the Battle 4 Atlantis by topping Texas A&M, 74-67, in the tournament championship game on Friday. Throughout the week, we learned plenty about the Orange. Here are five takeaways I have following the tournament:
Syracuse can beat bigger teams
With a thin frontcourt, conventional wisdom says the Orange will struggle against bigger teams this season. And on occasion, they probably will. But Friday's win over Texas A&M proved that Syracuse is capable of giving those bigger teams as many problems as it will receive.
When Syracuse was on offense yesterday, the Aggies struggled to defend the Orange's perimeter-oriented attack. SU went 11-for-25 from 3 — good for an impressive 44% clip — and its wing players were constantly able to beat their defenders off the dribble and get to the basket. As a result, those players drew a number of fouls; in total, Trevor Cooney, Michael Gbinije and Malachi Richardson attempted 22 free throws.
The continued rise of Michael Gbinije
So far this season, Michael Gbinije has somehow surpassed the high expectations that were set for him. He has an effective field goal percentage of 67.1% and a true shooting percentage of 68.9%. Take out his 1-for-4 showing from the free throw line against Connecticut and he's currently putting together a 50-50-80 season. He's also distributing the ball, as his 29.1% assist rate ranks 165th among more than 2,200 Division I players.
Better yet, Gbinije has been almost as effective on the defensive end. He's coming away with steals on 4.7% of possessions, the 50th-best mark nationally. He's also second on the team in defensive win shares, trailing only Tyler Lydon in that category.
Gbinije won the tournament's most valuable player award, some he certainly deserved. In three games, he shot 60% from 3 while averaging 21 points, five assists and 2.7 steals per contest.
Tyler Lydon makes Syracuse impossible to stop
I'm kidding when I say that, but maybe I shouldn't be. Tyler Lydon has been stupid good since the start of the season, and he made quite the statement at the Battle 4 Atlantis. During the tournament, he shot 60% from the field and 70% from 3 with an effective field goal percentage of 74.5%. That's as incredible as it sounds.
As I wrote on Friday, it's very difficult for defenders to guard Lydon when he's playing either power forward or center, which is the majority of the time. He typically hangs out near the perimeter and has proven he can drain open 3s with ease when those defenders don't stray out to guard him. When they do creep out to the perimeter, it opens up driving lanes for players like Gbinije, Cooney and Richardson — another reason those players were able to attack the basket so successfully yesterday.
Memo to Trevor Cooney: Stop shooting so much
I was generally impressed with how Trevor Cooney played throughout the week. He was exceptional on the defensive end and made things happen when he drove to the basket. I couldn't agree more with this point raised by The Daily Orange's Jesse Dougherty:
Immediate reaction from a really impressive SU win: If you're still calling Trevor Cooney a one-dimensional player, you really have to stop.— Jesse Dougherty (@dougherty_jesse) November 27, 2015
To this day, there still seems to be a common misconception that Cooney is simply a good shooter and nothing else. Not only is that completely false at this point, but the notion that he's a good shooter seems less and less accurate with each passing game.
Before the season, I predicted that the addition of players like Lydon and Richardson would free up Cooney for more open looks, which would translate into better shooting clips. So far, that hasn't happened. During the Battle 4 Atlantis, he shot 39.5% from the field and 31.8% from 3. On the season, he's now shooting 34.6% from the field and 31% from 3, with an effective field goal percentage of 44.2%. Making matters worse, Cooney is taking a high volume of shots, as he leads Syracuse both in field goal attempts and attempts from 3.
Cooney does a lot of things well. Shooting just doesn't seem to be one of those things, so it would probably be within both his and Syracuse's best interest if he scaled back the number of shots he's taking.
Better than we thought
I don't want to make any rash conclusions based on two games against Connecticut and Texas A&M, but it certainly looks like the Orange are better than most of us — myself included — thought they would be. Syracuse is an even better 3-point shooting team than I expected they would be, and SU knows how to get open shots. If nothing else, this tournament proved the Orange are more than capable of shooting their way to victories.
Of course, you can argue that at some point Syracuse will inevitably go cold with its shots and lose games because of it. And while that could very well happen, SU's sheer number of options from deep make it less likely that it'll happen frequently. For Syracuse to go ice cold, that means four or five shooters will need to simultaneously go ice cold.
In any scenario, one thing is clear: in addition to being fun, the Orange just might be pretty good this season.