For all the recruiting snafus and NCAA sanctions that partially defined the latter half of the 2010s for Syracuse Orange basketball, it’s easy to forget SU might’ve caught a break bigger than any misfortune suffered.
Syracuse originally lost Tyus Battle, ranked 27th in the class of 2016, to Michigan. In a stroke of rare Central New York fortune, Battle backed out, visited Syracuse and committed to Jim Boeheim’s squad.
Those teams did not evolve as expected. Jim Boeheim lost Taurean Thompson, Tyler Lydon, Darius Bazley, Matthew Moyer, Geno Thorpe (mid-season) — while Malachi Richardson bolted after the 2016 Final Four run. Mike Hopkins departed at the end of Battle’s freshman season, further impacting recruiting. Battle stayed, and despite offensively-challenged teams, and an immensely frustrating final season, he maintained Syracuse’s national relevancy.
Mike Waters, while not including Battle among his all-decade starters, said today he’d bring Battle off the bench to attempt a game-winning shot. While undoubtedly the most clutch Orange of the decade, I’ll go a step further and declare Battle the player of the decade. That’s due to his individual value to SU from 2016-2019, while discounting future NBA success and overall team success.
Other players won more, some produced in concert with Battle’s numbers at their height and Syracuse made two Final Fours without him this decade. Yet no other player hit the intersection of winning, producing and playoff success more than Battle. Even during his freshman year he felt like Syracuse’s most important player in some games.
When Battle left campus after the 2019 NCAA Tournament loss to Baylor, he stood 16th all-time with 1,647 points. Only CJ Fair scored more than him during the 2010s (1,660), but it look him 40 more games to do so. Nobody approached Battle’s 16.0 points per game.
He never made the Final Four like Trevor Cooney, Michael Gbinije or Brandon Triche. His teams went 61-42, compared to an astounding 121-26 during Triche’s four seasons. The Big East sent the same number of teams per season to the NCAAs as the ACC did during Battle’s years.
Triche, however, played with Wes Johnson, Andy Rautins, Kris Joseph, Rick Jackson, Dion Waiters, CJ Fair, Fab Melo and Michael Carter-Williams. Battle got one good year of Frank Howard, Oshae Brissett, Andrew White and John Gillon.
His lack of assistance offensively placed a burden on Battle that he often met until pressure and point guard minutes wore him out toward the end of 2018-19. The most-talented roster, 2016-17, narrowly missed March Madness. While far from No. 1 of the “what ifs” since 2010, I still wonder what that upset-happy team could’ve accomplished.
It featured some of Battle’s signature moments: his game-winning shot at Clemson, an underrated six points in three minutes late in the Duke upset (11-point second half) and 23 points in an upset over Virginia — Syracuse’s only regular season win against Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers.
Malachi Richardson had a hefty hand in the other one; a certain postseason victory you may remember. He averaged 14.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.0 steal per game during his 2016 run. Battle averaged 15.2, 2.7, 3.0 and 0.8 per game in March, 2018.
SU nearly edged out the Marvin Bagley Blue Devils to reach the Elite Eight that year. The Orange ripped through Arizona State, TCU and finally Michigan State in one of the great defensive stands in Syracuse history. SU pissed off the nation, grinded games to a halt and Boeheim’s second-worst worst roster of the decade made it further in March than some of the best.
Save for Marek Dolezaj’s 13 points against Duke, only Battle, Brissett and Frank Howard scored double-figures during that run. Battle played entire games every night that year as Moyer and Bourama Sidibe provided little off the bench and Thorpe left weeks into the season. Howard and Battle also formed a devastating defensive combo, with length, cohesion and a great sense for passing lanes. Battle only missed two games in his career.
After momentum drove him up draft boards in 2018 he decided to stay after testing his NBA value, then stayed to build on what he accomplished and graduate. He thrived again even as Brissett capsized offensively and Howard struggled immensely, forcing him to play point guard. De’Andre Hunter shut him down in his final home game and the Orange bowed out in March. Battle already established his legacy.
I’ll never knock Waiters, Carter-Williams, Richardson and Lydon for leaving early. All four made millions of dollars and played professional basketball. It also doesn’t gain them extra point for strictly judging their Orange careers.
Battle led three successful teams that almost assuredly would’ve failed completely without him. His success in the iSchool only made his story cooler and although his game largely revolved around isolation scoring, his teams that starved for points needed those more than anything.
The 2019-20 Orange, more than anything, should show how important Battle was to SU. They don’t have a steady hand offensively, he could break most defenses and — as Waters stated — he might’ve been the most clutch performer in Syracuse history.
He embraced the importance of basketball to the Syracuse community, signing autographs and routinely interacting with fans. On campus, he interacted with other students. Before he left, he even got his Georgetown moment in the waning moments of that rivalry holding value. I tuned in from Spain in the middle of the night to watch his game-winner fall.
As frustrating as Syracuse basketball was to close the decade, Battle still made it mandatory watching for all interested. If he attended Michigan it’s impossible to tell what other dominos fall. I can say we weren’t watching three years as interesting as those.
Who was the player of the decade to you, and why? Let’s talk below.