That Syracuse is 10-3 entering ACC play tonight isn’t particularly surprising; prior to the season, that seemed like a reasonable nonconference record for the Orange.
What is surprising, though, is how the Orange got there. They won some games many didn’t expect them to — most notably when they topped Connecticut and Texas A&M in the Battle 4 Atlantis — and lost some games they probably shouldn’t have — to lowly Wisconsin and St. John’s.
SU’s ACC slate begins tonight at Pittsburgh, and the second half of the season could very well be as up-and-down as the first half was. Entering conference play, here are five questions that, depending on the answers, could determine the Orange’s level of success.
Can the Orange shoot well more consistently?
In games that could have gone either way this season, Syracuse has come out victorious when it has made its 3-pointers. At the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Orange went 20-of-45 from deep in upset victories over Connecticut and Texas A&M.
But when the Orange have struggled from beyond the arc, they've become extremely vulnerable — and it's often resulted in losses. In losses to Georgetown, St. John's and Wisconsin, SU went a combined 19-of-77 — or 24.7% — from 3.
It sounds obvious, because it is, but Syracuse will need to shoot more consistently than it did in December if it expects to have any success in conference play. Perhaps that means getting Tyler Lydon more involved, or maybe it means ensuring that Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson are taking higher-percentage shots. In any scenario, the Orange will need to figure something out.
Will Gbinije keep it up?
Since the start of the season, Michael Gbinije has played exceptionally well. With a 60.7 effective field goal percentage and a 28.1% assist rate, he does it all on the offensive end. Additionally, he's grabbing 4.2 rebounds per game and coming away with steals on 4.3% of possessions.
He's also leading the Orange in minutes played, having recently surpassed Cooney in that department. Like Richardson said earlier this season, Gbinije is Syracuse's LeBron James. He simply does everything. That's both incredibly impressive and, for Syracuse, worrisome.
If the night comes — yes, I say if — when Gbinije struggles, the Orange will be hard-pressed to find a way to win. And if, by some chance, he falls into a slump for multiple games, that could send Syracuse into a downward spiral.
It's a lot to ask, but the Orange desperately need him to keep up his current pace. He's that important.
If called upon, will Joseph be ready?
Entering the season, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim praised Kaleb Joseph for the improvements he made in the offseason after suffering through a difficult 2014-15 campaign. Thirteen games into the 2015-16 season, though, Joseph has hardly been given a chance to show off the strides he's made.
That's because Joseph is playing only 7.4 minutes per game. Of course, the counterargument is that when he has played, he hasn't played particularly well. He's shooting only 23.8% and has struggled in the 2-3 zone.
Still, though, it's potentially concerning that Joseph hasn't seen the court much yet this season. If and when Syracuse needs to call his number in a big spot — whether it be because of foul trouble or an injury — it remains to be seen whether he'll be ready.
Is Coleman's recent production a sign of things to come?
In wins over Montana State and Texas Southern last week, Syracuse center Dajuan Coleman scored 13 and 14 points, respectively, going a combined 9-of-10 from the field. It was, at least from an offensive standpoint, the best he's looked this season.
An optimist would look at Coleman's recent showings and say it's evidence that he's finally coming into form after missing nearly the past two seasons due to injury. If that's the case, it would, obviously, be huge news for the Orange, who have struggled to find consistent interior scoring this season.
However, those performances came against two of the smaller teams in college basketball and two of the worst teams on Syracuse's schedule. So it's more likely that Coleman's improvements were outliers against weak competition.
Either way, we'll find out the answer very soon.
Can Syracuse survive its difficult early schedule?
Here's what the first half of Syracuse's ACC schedule includes: at Pittsburgh, at Miami, North Carolina, at Wake Forest, at Duke, at Virginia and Notre Dame.
You could very easily make a case that the Orange might start 3-6 or 2-7 in the conference. That would put them in quite the hole; if the Orange were to start 2-7, they'd be 12-10 on the season. At that point, they'd need a blistering second half of conference play to have a legitimate case to make the NCAA Tournament. Obviously, that would be difficult to pull off.
On the other hand, if they can get hot from beyond the arc a few times and start 5-4 or 6-3 in ACC play, the Orange would be in a great position to finish strong and secure a spot in the tournament.
Translation: Those first nine games will be crucial.