Syracuse's 96-54 exhibition victory over Florida Southern on Sunday would seem to confirm what we already knew: if SU is going to struggle this season, it won't be for the same reasons the Orange finished just 18-13 overall in 2014-15.
While last season's team was plagued by the absence of offensively capable perimeter players, Sunday showed that quite the opposite should be true for the 2015-16 version of the Orange. Together, Kaleb Joseph and Malachi Richardson put on an offensive display, combining for 31 points on just 13 shots. Richardson had an especially good afternoon, coupling a team-high 18 points with a facilitative performance and an impressive showing on defense.
In all, Syracuse went 31-of-63 from the floor and hit 14 of 29 tries from 3, led by Joseph and Richardson's combined 7-of-10 shooting from deep.
"In these two exhibition games, you want to learn something. And I think we have," SU head coach Jim Boeheim said, referencing today's game in addition to last Monday's against Le Moyne. " ... We moved the ball well and got a lot of good shots."
Joseph and Richardson were responsible for much of that, as were Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije. The fifth-year guards combined for 29 points on 8-of-17 shooting. But Syracuse already knows what to expect from Cooney and Gbinije, who were second and third in scoring on the Orange last season.
There's more uncertainty with Joseph and Richardson -- Joseph because he struggled last season and Richardson because he's yet to play in his first regular season college basketball game.
And admittedly, anything learned from an exhibition game like this one should be taken with a grain of salt. Syracuse should beat Division II teams handily, even the defending national champions, and Syracuse players should play well against Division II teams.
But Sunday nonetheless gave reason to believe that Joseph and Richardson will be able to provide the offensive spark plugs that SU was never able to find in 2014-15.
After sitting for the game's first six minutes, Joseph entered at the 13:55 mark of the first half and immediately left his footprint on the game. He knocked down 3s on consecutive possessions, putting the Orange up 16-2 and forcing Florida Southern into calling a timeout.
On his way to the bench, Joseph pounded his chest and was congratulated by Boeheim. Last season when Joseph would walk to the bench, he was typically being removed from the game and receiving an earful from the coach after making a silly mistake or taking an ill-advised shot.
"When I'm open and I have an open shot, I'm going to take it," Joseph said. "(Boeheim) is confident in me and I'm confident in myself. That's really the biggest difference (from last season)."
When play resumed, Joseph notched five more points in four minutes, scoring a breakaway layup off a steal and draining another 3-pointer at the 8:31 mark. One minute later, Richardson re-entered the game and the spotlight shifted onto him.
Richardson hit a 3-pointer with just under six minutes to play and another one roughly 90 seconds later, at the 4:24 mark. He would finish 4-of-6 from 3 and, in total, was 7-of-14 from deep in the two exhibitions. Just about every scouting report on Richardson mentions shooting as his biggest strength, and he is certainly confirming that.
"Since eighth grade, that's what he's done," Boeheim said.
But after his made 3-pointer at the 4:24 mark, Richardson jumped high near halfcourt and stole the ensuing inbound pass. He then whipped the ball to Cooney, who drove from the left corner to the basket and scored.
The sequence highlighted two things Richardson is capable of doing -- playing active defense and distributing -- that the scouting reports don't always mention.
For some freshmen, such as Joseph a season ago, learning Boeheim's 2-3 zone proves to be a difficult task. But at least through these two exhibitions, that doesn't seem to be the case with Richardson, who came away with three steals and showed an ability to close out quickly on open jump shooters.
"I feel pretty good in the zone," he said. "I'm still learning my position, but I feel good about what to do on the breakdowns and about all the different techniques."
Richardson also looked adept as a distributor, even out of the forward spot. He finished with only two assists, but he easily could have had several more. At one point, Richardson made an exceptional crosscourt pass from the left side of halfcourt to Cooney, who was just beyond the 3-point line on the right wing.
And even as Cooney missed the open 3, it was another display of Richardson's capabilities outside of his shooting.
"It's always been something I've liked to do. I've always been a good passer," Richardson said. "I think that's something people don't really get to see a lot. And it gets overlooked, but that's O.K."
Similarly, some might argue that Syracuse has been overlooked as the regular season nears; in the preseason media poll, voters picked the Orange to finish ninth in the Atlantic Coast Conference. And if Sunday was an indication of what's to come from Richardson and Joseph in 2015-16, you'd probably be justified in expecting the Orange to exceed those expectations.