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Three takeaways from Syracuse’s 82-70 win over North Florida

Elijah Hughes is everything.

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North Florida v Syracuse Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

Barring an all-time disaster against a sub-300, 2-8 Niagara team, the Syracuse Orange escaped non-conference play without a bad loss. They avoided a North Florida upset after SU played them to a tie through 28 minutes. This could mean nothing if Georgetown or Oklahoma State sink, or the Orange quickly rack up losses in ACC play.

It could mean everything if Syracuse’s blank slate allows them to build quality wins. Four teams the Orange face rank in the top-20 of KenPom’s rankings and three appeared in the top-30 of the NET. John wrote about SU’s barely living NCAA Tournament hopes recently.

A narrow win over an Atlantic Sun opponent won’t elicit much confidence SU can hang with a Louisville or Duke and save them. All they can do is handle close games and hope those situations transcend against tougher opponents, especially if the defense improves. It doesn’t have much room to get any worse.

Some positives did emerge on Saturday, including Quincy Guerrier drawing four fouls in the final 5:30 after UNF edged to within seven points. Guerrier scored through two fouls, but only hit 3-of-6 from the line. He remains in Jim Boeheim’s fold for bench minutes into conference play.

Here are other takeaways from the win.

Elijah Hughes good enough to enter ACC Player of the Year conversation

Hughes has been everything for this team. A peak at the ACC scoring hierarchy places him a hair above Cole Anthony at 19.8 points per game, and Anthony may not play again this year.

Jordan Nwora is the favorite on a top-tier Louisville team while scoring over 21 PPG. He’s shooting more efficiently than Hughes, but Saturday’s 18-point performance and closing efforts, along with Hughes’ specific importance to a lackluster Orange team should render him a legitimate candidate for ACC Player of the Year.

Hughes reached the free throw line twice on back-door cuts when the game stood at 47-47. He cut off a pass by Wajid Aminu (brother of the Orlando Magic’s Al-Farouq Aminu) to get Marek Dolezaj two shots at the line. Hughes scored inside soon after and added a three-point play before the end of the game. He added four assists with a block.

For all that’s gone wrong through this opening stretch, Hughes has been everything the Orange need and thrived while increasing his volume offensively. Defensively, the Ospreys shot 0-for-5 in Hughes’ zone.

Marek Dolezaj should touch the ball once every possession

NCAA Basketball: North Florida at Syracuse Richard Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Dolezaj manned the high post and looked again for his favorite target midway through the second half: Hughes cutting back-door. Oakland’s coach highlighted it on Wednesday, North Florida’s didn’t get the message. Hopefully Syracuse receives Saturday’s message, that Dolezaj should touch the ball on every possession.

He led the Orange with eight assists and nearly matched Hughes with 17 points. The win marked his fifth game over the last six with double-figure scoring, as he’s attacked the interior more on the dribble. His 5-0 run early in the second half gave the Orange necessary separation after only leading by three at the half.

From the high post he found Buddy Boeheim and Joseph Girard III for threes alongside his layup. Foul troubled eliminated him from crunch time. His mark already set UNF back enough possessions to negate a 39% second half from three.

The top of the zone is still a work in progress

NCAA Basketball: North Florida at Syracuse Richard Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

UNF’s top-ranked three-point attack made this game prime opportunity for the Orange’s first bad loss. Boeheim entered in the 33rd percentile defensively, struggling particularly late in the shot clock.

The struggles continued. The Ospreys sprayed from three as expected and converted 37 percent of them. They drilled 7-of-14 over Boeheim and 5-of-11 over Girard. Jim faces a tough choice with his guards drilling 8-for-20 outside themselves. Buddy is quietly among the top-10 ACC scorers. His defense remains a major issue.

Howard Washington’s sample size is small, though his 0.66 points per possession allowed on spot-up jumpers (3-for-11) is in the 78th percentile. Boeheim and Girard are leaking, allowing dribble penetration that sends them scrambling out to the perimeter on kick-outs.

Washington communicates and his shot looks good. Boeheim announced after the game that he is dealing with some knee swelling — hence the DNP. Girard and Boeheim played all 80 minutes available from the top of the zone.