Frank Howard’s final turnover in the Syracuse Orange’s 80-62 loss happened in the worst spot, right in front of his coach. It wasn’t a far walk to the bench from there.
He opened the half fouling Phil Cofer on an off-balance shot and already turned the ball over less than one minute earlier. Those mistakes stalled momentum after Syracuse pulled from down 21 points in the first half to within eight.
“He couldn’t make it,” Boeheim said describing Cofer’s shot. “It was an off-balance jump shot and (Howard) fouled it ... tried to throw Paschal the ball where he can’t catch it legitimately, then he threw it out of bounds. We can’t play like that.”
With 17:37 remaining in the second half, Boeheim pulled the plug. He inserted Buddy Boeheim, sat Howard down and briefly leaned over in conversation. Howard’s benching effectively ended a night that he only played 14 minutes in — a season low.
Howard hit a pair of vital second-half threes that separated Syracuse as Pittsburgh stormed back in Saturday’s win. Compounding an inconsistent senior season, Boeheim said that Howard — as well as Paschal Chukwu — weren’t playable on Tuesday against Florida State.
“We just talk about basketball on the bench,” Howard said of his chat with Boeheim. “You’ve just got to stay engaged.”
He posted more fouls than points, missed two threes attempts and all three free throws. Boeheim diverted 26 minutes to Boeheim, and ran the Tyus Battle point guard lineup. It came on a night where Syracuse had to press longer than anyone usually presses, as the coach Boeheim pointed out. That placed 37 minutes of comeback basketball, pressing and point guard duties on Battle.
Syracuse drew within two points behind his 23-point performance, but Florida State immediately punched back with a 10-0 run midway through the second half that downed the Orange for good. Howard watched all of it save for several minutes from the sideline.
“Buddy did a great job of coming in and helping us out,” Oshae Brissett said. “Obviously we want Frank in the game, but it just wasn’t his game today. Players have that, he’s got to forget about it, we’re all going to forget about it.”
Brissett said that Boeheim consoled the team in the locker room for their 7-3 start in a difficult ACC in spite of the loss. He didn’t spare criticism for his point guard in the post game presser. Much like the sentiment among his teammates, Boeheim said that he wishes Howard could put it all together. But he added, “he’s got to do what he can.”
Howard posted 14.4 points and 4.7 assists in his breakout junior year while logging 38.4 minutes per game. He shot, scored and passed better than every before, but his steals and communication defensively at the top of the zone with Battle powered a dominant defense.
This year, he’s continued to produce at that end. Syracuse allows 95.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, by far the best mark of his career and 5.3 points below last season. For his struggles, he’s still a +5.2 net rating for the Orange, with a 2.0 defensive box plus minus that signifies he saves two points above an average defensive player.
That’s 1.1 points above Battle and 3.1 above Boeheim (-1.1). The problem is his sporadic offense. SU’s 100.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor is a team-worst only to Jalen Carey’s 81.8.
With Carey out of the rotation, Battle takes over at point guard when Howard exits and that’s helped balance the looks that the Orange can throw at opponents. It’s a good strategic weapon to have, but it isn’t meant to displace Howard. Over the past six games however, Howard has played fewer than 30 minutes three times and is averaging 27.4 on the season.
“Everyone has hard nights,” Battle said. “I just struggled last game, so he’s one of the key leaders on this team. He has the most basketball experience on this team. Final Four experience with this team ... it’s tough.”
Howard says he’s approaching the season with an even-keeled mindset, never getting too high or low. He had successes like his 16-point second half in the Duke upset, a trio of threes in a win over Clemson and he’s increased his three-point percentage above 30.
He struggled with balance in his lower body returning from injury. But neither he nor Boeheim resorted to blaming that preseason ankle issue for a recent spur of inconsistency.
“He can’t get by people,” Boeheim said. “They’re a pressure team and he can’t get by them. He just gets side to side, then he has to throw it and there’s nobody open because they aren’t coming to help because he can’t get by.”
Brissett and teammates tried to instill confidence in him through the streakiness. He said that players returning from injury like Howard can lose sight of what they’re capable of.
“I just let him know he’s the leader of this team and we’re not doing it without him,” Brissett said. “It’s been pretty blatant the last couple of games, that he’s been able to carry us.”
Inconsistency, Battle added, is a team issue as much as it’s been an issue for Howard. Brissett himself is posting a 1.1 offensive box plus minus and is only beginning to emerge from early-season struggles of his own.
As Howard sat watching the second half, he tried to stay engaged, continue to communicate with teammates and find other ways to contribute. He said he’ll put this game behind him, because he can’t change what happened.
Chukwu, no stranger to inconsistency in his own right, dominated in the Duke win and other nights has simply stood exhibiting little movement to his coach. In Tuesday’s loss, he scored 0 points and grabbed three rebounds in 18 minutes.
Boeheim and Marek Dolezaj played for them and struggled to score too, shooting 3-for-11, but made other plays that contributed to a comeback that persisted through the first 30 minutes.
“I expect our veteran guys to be able to play in this game and they didn’t,” Boeheim said.