In the Syracuse Orange’s 2018 NCAA Tournament upset win over Michigan State, Frank Howard fouled out past the midway point of the second half. It appeared to be a fatal blow. Tyus Battle hadn’t played point all season and former walk-on Braedon Bayer improbably entered in March crunch time for the Orange.
Syracuse escaped, scraping by, 55-53, on clutch shots by Battle and micromanaging defensive possessions to the point of intentionally fouling the clock away. Somehow, more dire circumstances awaited this year’s Orange to open the preseason. No point guards were healthy for exhibitions against Saint Rose and Le Moyne. Now loaded with depth, this group thrived, albeit against Division II opponents.
“If we had only eight or nine guys to start with, we wouldn’t be able to play these guys very well,” Jim Boeheim said afterward.
Battle lined up at point guard again against St. Rose. Buddy Boeheim started beside him. Elijah Hughes opened his first game at the forward position that the Orange expect to use him in. Oshae Brissett slid over to the front court and Paschal Chukwu assumed his center spot.
It’s difficult to extrapolate these games to the regular season, but a rash of injuries simply gave way to intriguing experimentation rather than disaster. Minus three facilitators, Boeheim still courted his most versatile unit in some time.
Boeheim and Hughes inserted the shooting the Orange starved for last year. Battle focused on making simple plays, while Brissett helped create out of the high and low post areas. Chukwu even flashed some post moves in the second half of the St. Rose win.
The game opened with Battle, Brissett and Hughes working the ball high to low, then back out for a three. Their sets didn’t reinvent the wheel, but exhibited more fluidity than most of 2017-18’s.
Brissett quickly slid back to small forward next to Marek Dolezaj and drove to the basket for three consecutive makes. Well, the last dunk attempt missed and landed back in his hands when he hit the ground to create an easy put-back.
Boeheim and Brissett both dished assists out of the high post before halftime. Boeheim kicked to his left on the drive to find Hughes, who faked and stepped inside the arc for a jumper. Brissett passed right from the free throw line to Boeheim for a three.
Then Brissett pulled out the Kevin Love, whipping a defensive rebound to Hughes running in transition for a dunk.
Battle played point guard, but received plenty of passing help from the new (and old) infusion of offensive talent around him. He capped the first-half scoring by transferring the ball across half court to Boeheim for a buzzer-beating three.
Drilling Boeheim and Hughes repeatably, as they hit 15-of-27 in their debuts, garnered Battle and Brissett six and four assists. They averaged 2.1 and 0.9 respectively in 17-18.
41.5 percent shooting didn’t mark an efficiency explosion for Boeheim’s group, but in sacrificing some size and point guard play SU still generated 38.5 percent shooting from three and assisted on 14 of 27 shots. All while playing “really active mostly the whole game” on defense and rebounding, per Boeheim.
The full court press returned too, a card Boeheim felt he couldn’t pull often with a thin lineup, to force 26 turnovers against Le Moyne.
Battle finished with 11 assists with two turnovers in the preseason. With Jalen Carey reportedly out for two more weeks, and the status of Howard and Howard Washington for the regular season opener against Eastern Washington on Tuesday uncertain, Battle could be in for more time at the point.
“He’s a pretty good ball-handler,” Boeheim said. “It’s hard to make that switch. He’s always been a scoring guard. I think he’s done a good job.”
On top of the new injectors of offense, Dolezaj’s range expanded and Chukwu is stronger compared to last year, according to their coach.
All these factors contributed to circumstances that would normally become dire becoming smooth sailing for the Orange. Depth could become confusing later. Who plays, when and where?
“Everybody will have their time and they’ll have to figure out where they can contribute,” Boeheim said.