Make it 80 in two straight games from the Syracuse Orange offense. They barely approached that point total in the 11 games that preceded their blowout victories over Arkansas State and St. Bonaventure that capped their non-conference record at 9-4.
The Bonnies by no means resembled the group that walked out of the Carrier Dome with a victory one year ago, and I don’t see the Red Wolves sniffing a March berth either, but Jim Boeheim inserted a new starting lineup that returned efficient and active performances individual of the poor competition. Elijah Hughes is scoring in volume, Oshae Brissett is rolling downhill and Tyus Battle appears ready to join the NBA ranks.
Most importantly, SU proved capable of linking their defensive and offensive units through a strong transition game. In their new lineup, every player can push the ball up the court, and 25 Bonnies turnovers essentially rolled the red carpet past half court. The Orange built an 11-point lead early entirely on transition points — at one point they outscored St. Bonaventure 28-6 off turnovers.
“We need to run,” Boeheim said after. “When you can get the opportunities, you’ve got to take it.”
Notre Dame, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Duke await in non-conference play to test the actual level of offensive improvement that Syracuse garnered through the 2018 slate (KenPom ranked them 60th). SU scored less than 70 in three of their four losses and dropped a measly 59 in the Buffalo game. Through 12 games, the Orange placed 64th in the new NET rating.
Marek Dolezaj changed the offense
Calls for Dolezaj to reunite with his teammates in the starting lineup from his breakout freshman season got answered when Boeheim inserted him for Paschal Chukwu before the Arkansas State win. Off the bench, Dolezaj had averaged 3.0 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game on 62.5 percent shooting and a 42.9 percent mark outside.
Dolezaj’s minutes on the court were marked by cutting, sound passing from multiple court positions and the occasional boost in floor spacing. The presence of him and Elijah Hughes on the perimeter played into the turnaround Tyus Battle achieved in terms of efficiency — more on that in a second.
Following a three-pointer and pair of assists in 16 minutes against the Red Wolves, Dolezaj hit 3-of-4, including another three from the corner, to go with five rebounds, three assists and a steal over the Bonnies.
“I thought he was aggressive, he got some open looks. When he gets set, when he gets set and he gets time, he can make that shot,” Boeheim said. “He’s a good player, he has to play well for us, he was solid today.”
In the first half, Hughes and Dolezaj both fed each other on assists, while Dolezaj attacked on the ball and missed to open the lane for Battle to clean it up during his early stretch of buckets. Dolezaj routinely mans the ball above the three point arc and in the high post, providing Syracuse with a more active offensive presence at center.
The two concerns revolve around whether Dolezaj can defend the inside in ACC play — a role Boeheim spoke hesitantly of in the past — and if Syracuse can consistently involve Chukwu off the bench. He posted strong rebounding games in both of his appearances there — including six in 15 minutes today to pair with three steals.
Tyus Battle is perfect
Battle shot well enough in the opening minutes of Saturday’s win to inspire somebody to ask Boeheim if he felt comfortable coasting with 35 minutes left. His head shook three times immediately.
Syracuse did slide to a blowout victory on the back of Battle’s 8-for-8 shooting performance though. It marked his first perfect shooting game in a Syracuse uniform and capped his non-conference schedule with 48 field goal, 31.9 three-point and 78.8 free throw percentages. He averaged 18.0 points per game and proved that the Orange likely could not survive without his volume scoring.
The opening sequence against St. Bonaventure featured a volcanic stretch of scoring where he finished two layups inside on a cut from Frank Howard and in transition through traffic after he created the first of his six steals on the day. That all happened in less than one minute of game time following the opening tip.
He made four straight shots, two free throws, and created two steals while Syracuse built a 13-2 lead in the opening 4:30. The Orange turned the Bonnies over on six of the first eight possessions, crafting an approach that translated to the remaining 35.
With a massive second-half lead, Boeheim tested Battle at point guard for spurts alongside Jalen Carey. Battle manned that spot in the absence of Howard and Carey early in the season, and with Howard Washington likely to redshirt his sophomore season, Battle could be increasing his workload into conference play.
Extra floor spacing, pace and continued strength on the defensive end is empowering Battle toward his most efficient season. While Hughes and Brissett bear the brunt of the secondary scoring, he has lost much of what Dolezaj and Howard provided in that department last year. There will still be extensive pressure on Battle to score double figures in order for the Orange to win in conference play.
Recovery process continues for Howard and Carey
Syracuse predicted Howard and Carey would return for opening night when both suffered ankle injuries during the preseason. Neither did, and while both continue to take the court for the Orange prior to the new year, neither have fully regained their prior form.
For Howard, his excellent three-point shooting from the 2017-18 season regressed to 23 percent through nine non-conference contests. He hit 1-of-3 from the field and only scored four to fall below his average of six points per game on Saturday.
Howard posted an offensive rating below 90 for the first time in his Syracuse career, a negative offensive box plus minus and a lower defensive box plus minus than a season ago. That he came within a percentage point of his 17-18 assist percentage and maintains a career-high in steal percentage provide the only silver lining for Syracuse.
Howard’s offensive struggles and Chukwu’s demotion to the bench limits the defensive upside that drove the Orange last year. Carey’s inconsistency undermines the point guard and bench productivity of the team.
Boeheim’s remained tough on Carey in pressers throughout the non-conference slate, and continued after the St. Bonaventure win by calling him out for walking the ball up instead of pushing the pace.
Carey scored no more than four points following two double-figure scoring performances at Madison Square Garden. He missed another game against Arkansas State with a hip injury.
“He’s got to react better in games like this.”