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Should we be concerned after Syracuse basketball’s 0-2 showing at Madison Square Garden?

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Syracuse needs more time and reps to jell and maybe a healthy Frank Howard. Plus, a few positives to take away.

2K Empire Classic Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Last week, the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team headed down to Madison Square Garden as part of ‘Cuse in the City to participate in the 2K Classic. Coming on the heels of the women’s basketball win over No. 20 Texas A&M in White Plains, the men’s team laid an egg at the Garden, going 0-2 on consecutive nights against UConn and Oregon.

Now, it’s a long basketball season and things are far from finished, but I’m not going to be the one to say this isn’t worrisome, either. It definitely is. For a team with National Championship aspirations and five returning starters from a Sweet 16 run, this group looks like it’s still figuring some things out for a group that should probably have some things figured out.

Jim Boeheim noted that his team is nowhere close to where it was last year defensively and on the other end of the court, things are looking abysmal. Syracuse shot under 40 percent in both games at Madison Square Garden. The Orange are No. 346 in the country in three point field goal percentage (Ken Pom) after going a combined 11-for-50 from deep in the 2K Classic.

“We tried different sets, different movements, different perimeter things,” Jim Boeheim said after the Oregon game. “Stepping people out, setting ball screens, popping. All of those things. If the ball doesn’t go in none of that works.”

To be fair, there are some new variables in the mix to account for. Chief among them? Syracuse has three new players in Jalen Carey, Elijah Hughes and Buddy Boeheim and the first two represent a pair of guys who can put the ball in the bucket. Syracuse is also without its starting point guard Frank Howard.

Carey is a tremendous basketball player at the point, especially for a freshman. But he and Howard have contrasting styles at the one. While Howard is someone who can come in, dictate tempo and set up his teammates first and score second, Carey wants to keep his foot on the gas, push the ball every time he gets it and score the basketball. There’s nothing wrong with that and at times that’s what Syracuse needs. But right now what this team needs is a quarterback.

“It’s like a football team playing without a quarterback. It’s not easy,” Boehiem said after beating Morehead State.

That’s not to say Carey is doing anything wrong. He’s a gifted scorer and should look to get buckets — I’m inclined to believe that Howard wouldn’t have dropped 26 points on UConn — but with three scoring options on the wing in Battle, Hughes and Brissett, the latter three guys would stand to benefit from someone looking to set them up. Carey had just one assist in the last two games.

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Going back to the big picture, as concerning as all this is, perhaps we can take some solace in that Syracuse didn’t lose to a pair of bad teams. Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert are two of the better guards in the country that should get UConn back to the NCAA Tournament this year. Oregon was ranked in the top 15 for a reason and Bol Bol represents one of the more unique and toughest matchups Syracuse will have all year outside of Duke.

2K Empire Classic Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Not only that, but Syracuse saw a multitude of different defenses last week. Whereas UConn put on a full-court press meant to disrupt and cause turnovers before falling back into mostly man-to-man, Oregon put on a soft press meant to take time off the shot-clock while falling back into zone. Those are the sorts of things that help a team like Syracuse in the long-run.

“That’s exactly what we were trying to do,” Payton Pritchard said when being asked if the press was just meant to slow the Syracuse offense as opposed to getting steals. “We would rather guard for 20 seconds (in the half-court) than 30 seconds.”

So, sitting at 2-2 isn’t great and it is somewhat worrisome. Syracuse will definitely fall out of the AP Top 25 today and this team has a lot of work to do. But on top of playing in a major media market that helps with recruiting, visibility and getting your team on a big stage, this is why you play in games like this. It’s better to get tested early, identify your team’s strengths and weakness and learn how to improve. Better to learn these lessons now than in January.

On both ends Syracuse will look to figure things out and get better. Now is when you watch film, get better in practice and follow that up with an improved performance against Colgate on Wednesday and look to move the chains beyond that.

For now the guys can’t do anything in terms of getting a healthy Howard back. But they can get better in practice, look to jell and play tougher. As Hughes succinctly put it after the UConn game, the team just have carry on without their quarterback and look to play hard.

“He’s one of our leaders. We know we’ll be really good when we get him back,” Hughes said of Howard. “We got what we got, we just gotta play hard.”

Easier said than done.

For Syracuse basketball stories and updates follow James on twitter @JamesSzuba