The Hoopshall Miami Invitational concluded with the Syracuse Orange’s first chance to put themselves back in the national conversation thwarted Saturday against the Kansas Jayhawks. Between Devonte’ Graham’s relentless shooting on the perimeter (7-of-13 from three) and Lagerald Vick’s disrespectful jams over the top of the zone, the Orange faltered behind a horrific shooting performance (32.1 percent).
It did take Kansas 17 minutes to establish their first 10-point lead, and Tyus Battle escaped early struggles to propel a comeback with a personal 6-0 run, helping Syracuse pull within 49-42. From there, strong play by Paschal Chukwu inside pushed the deficit as low as ten, but time grew short and missed free throws (as well as Bourama Sidibe’s injury) served the Jayhawks a 16-point win.
Here are three takeaways from the first major test of the season:
Chukwu’s strides have been massive but he still has more to make
There’s a case to be made that Chukwu’s dynamic post presence was as powerful of a factor as any in Syracuse remaining competitive for portions of this game. He has solidified himself as the starting center on the Orange, despite Bourama Sidibe providing a more fundamental change of pace and rest.
Saturday again showed how powerful of a force a 7’2” body can be in the 2-3 zone. In the gritty, mucky portion of the early minutes he commanded the middle with the wings far out on the perimeter to stop the three-point attack. When the ball swung to the corner, he sprinted out and the zone moved left-to-right as well as it has all season.
Jim Boeheim noted that Kansas was scoring over 90 points per game coming in and Syracuse held them to 76.
Chukwu’s defensive presence has been no surprise, but he impacted the game offensively too, particularly in keeping possessions alive. This was one of his more coordinated plays of the season, hitting Battle in stride while saving the ball from going out.
Even this play, relatively simple, is crucial for Chukwu. Being able to pull out the pick-and-roll, make the catch, shift his feet to free himself and then slam it down makes him more than a zero on offense.
Unfortunately, the play everybody will remember from the game is the definitive throwback to the old Chukwu, when he broke free underneath the net on a similar play and watched his two-handed dunk attempt fly right back out of the rim. The flow of the game hit a screeching halt and he picked up a technical for hanging on the rim. Minutes later, the Jayhawks broke away toward halftime with a significant lead.
The free throws are the difficult takeaway to substantiate from Chukwu’s game, he hit 5-of-10 (one stolen on the dumbest call in college basketball: lane violation) which is a massive improvement on his 1-of-6 start to the season at the stripe. But sending him to the line still proved effective for Kansas in keeping Syracuse off the board inside.
It’s hard to complain about improvement for Chukwu, he hauled in four offensive rebounds and irritated Kansas’ front court with his activity inside late in the second half, but fundamentally there’s still much more for him to put together.
“I thought Paschal got going a little bit, we utilized him a little bit better in the second half,” Jim Boeheim said. “Today we learned that we can utilize him.”
Still waiting on Matthew Moyer to break out of his early-season struggles
Moyer once again started for Syracuse against Kansas, but the popular mantra of “it’s not about who starts, it’s about who finishes” is fitting for the Orange’s power forward situation.
Nobody has claimed the four spot for Syracuse, neither Moyer nor Marek Dolezaj (who caught a pass into the paint with his face and had zero points and three turnovers in the game). As Ben Sigel noted, Dolezaj has been the choice for Boeheim in his most effective lineup featuring him alongside Sidibe with the starters on the wing.
That group had a strong stretch of play together through the second half, and the team overall earned the praise of Boeheim for their comeback efforts but SU needs Moyer to firmly establish his hold on his position.
He played 17 minutes compared to Dolezaj’s 23, and while Dolezaj is long and tall (a good combination for the zone) he has no consistent niche offensively.
Moyer himself is seeking his own offensive identity, but has a more built frame and is the better athlete. After his redshirt season, he’s only shooting 36.8 percent and is battling for minutes. Not what was expected preseason.
He mentioned wanting to do a little bit of everything for the team and to solidify their rebounding, there’s still an opportunity to claim that role, but Dolezaj has now played almost 50 more minutes than him through seven games.
Tyus Battle’s back is “fine” and he’s still this team’s greatest hope
While Oshae Brissett hit some early shots, he faded to 3-of-13 by game’s end and the Orange again leaned on Battle to finish in the second half and give the team a chance to hang around.
Battle continues to consistently score on a team that is hampered by offense, 2-of-11 outside shooting held him back from a 30 point game but he again reached 20 with floaters, a vicious transition dunk and crossovers leading to mid-range jumpers.
There’s substantial pressure on Battle to overcome a lack of floor spreading, team efficiency woes and ball movement concerns (three assists looked low early, until I realized they only had five buckets period), but he continues to show he’s well-suited to do so. The question is, can that alone be enough to beat quality competition? Saturday it was not (granted, it doesn’t get much better than Kansas).
“Your shots not always going to fall,” Battle said. “You got to keep on shooting ... staying aggressive and good things will happen.”
He also said his back was fine and that he isn’t worried about it after his nasty-looking spill contesting a shot against Toledo.