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Three takeaways from Syracuse’s 71-57 win over Niagara

Experimenting, a win, but little more to be optimistic about as ACC play continues a week from today.

NCAA Basketball: Niagara at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

If I was cautiously optimistic a week ago — label me minimally optimistic.

The Syracuse Orange defeated the Niagara Purple Eagles, ranked 307th in KenPom, 71-57. SU failed to pull away and had to play starters all the way to the buzzer. Jim Boeheim tested his depth, experimented with a new lineup and empower Elijah Hughes on the ball more than he has all year.

Jim saw mixed results. The offense flowed in the opening minutes, with Hughes opening 3-for-7 with eight points and seven assists by halftime. Joseph Girard III started 0-for-4 from three, while Buddy Boeheim drilled four early threes and finished with 15 points as Syracuse pushed a 41-27 halftime lead.

Niagara hung around, largely sticking within 13 points, behind three double-figure scoring performances and a late burst from Justin Roberts. The Eagles hammered SU with possessions, attempting 14 more shots then the Orange by attacking their ball-handlers.

Turnovers (16) flowed and Niagara — despite its inefficient shooting and Marek Dolezaj (12) and Bourama Sidibe’s (13) heavy hands in the rebounding game — won into the bench rotations. Hughes’ greatness, 19 points on 6-for-11, prevailed, but even he threw away a flurry of second-half passes.

Notre Dame and Virginia Tech line up at the Dome next. The ACC slate will swing a largely neutral non-conference slate for SU in one direction early in January. The final taste of December indicates it’s more likely to go poorly.

To the takeaways.

Elijah Hughes tested with more ball-handling responsibilities

NCAA Basketball: Niagara at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Girard got pulled from the guard rotation first and Boeheim even moved Hughes to point guard alongside Buddy with the bench unit. Howard Washington and Jesse Edwards missed the game with injuries, limiting how experimental Jim could get. It still marked the first guard minutes for Hughes since transferring to SU.

SU and Niagara split the time, 11-10, that Hughes played the top of the zone alongside Boeheim. Niagara effectively slashed to the interior. Robert Braswell rotated in with them and drilled a pair of threes, the lone bench contribution for the Orange in the half to salvage the nearly six-minute sequence.

Hughes handled the extra pressure, both in the lineup and from the Eagles defenders well in the first half. The second went differently. He tossed a pass off the back of Girard’s head in transition, then threw two other passes into a crowd of Niagara defenders inside to end the game with five. Niagara was within eight points when the Orange began funneling giveaways with 13 minutes remaining in the second half.

Bench still M.I.A.

NCAA Basketball: Niagara at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the short-lived struggles for the Hughes-led lineup, Braswell’s pair of threes prove he’s worthy of more run into conference play. That could be at risk with Syracuse considering a medical redshirt for him.

Dolezaj and Braswell typically play the wing well in the zone, despite their lack of run together. Jim doesn’t love Braswell’s rebounding and leg pain could take out another one fo his options off the bench.

The rest of the bench likely can’t be counted on either. Brycen Goodine and Quincy Guerrier combined to shoot 0-for-7. Goodine reached the free throw line once and earned a smile and high five for breaking up a Niagara play above the arc defensively from Jim. It’s been a struggle for the two though, even with their coach pressing to integrate both.

Defensive plays, like Guerrier’s strong rotations into the corner, will always appeal to Boeheim’s good side. These two aren’t ready for non-conference play though, putting extra pressure on the back court and interior.

Defense, defense, defense

NCAA Basketball: Niagara at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

A final of 57 points allowed doesn’t look bad. Then look at Niagara’s schedule and you’ll see Rutgers held the Eagles to fewer than 40 points. Niagara’s transition attack, back-door cuts and 13 offensive rebounds dug into the Orange’s defense again.

SU still doesn’t look ready on that side of the ball. Especially when Guerrier and Sidibe lock own the corners, as Boeheim ran into the paint too late on one play to get into the rebounding game.

Hughes became frustrated in the second half with Dolezaj for not rotating far enough out on a three-point shot. Roberts broke off for an eight-point run toward the end of the second half. Greg Kuakamensah set him up with a feed to the inside as SU rotated left and for three off an offensive rebound.

Holes litter this defense. A Girard-and-Hughes combination may have fared better in the back court. Jim still has to balance the offensive returns of Boeheim against Girard’s defense on a night where JGIII shot 1-for-7 outside.

This team has problems. They’re not digging out of holes of horrid losses like much of the NCAA is, but the experimentation period is over with little improvement.

Notre Dame’s up next at the Dome on Jan. 4 at 4 p.m.