Four straight wins later and the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team stands stunningly among the top four teams in the ACC as January closes. Victories over Virginia Tech, Virginia and now Notre Dame leave SU undefeated on the road in ACC play with three Quadrant One victories.
1. Road success continues, especially for Hughes
None of Syracuse’s road wins seem like they’ll be great wins by the eye test by the end of the year. Still, the NCAA Tournament process allows any win away from home within the top 75 of the NET to count as a great one.
The Orange look better on the road than at the Dome, largely thanks to Elijah Hughes continuing to play like an ACC Player of the Year. He shot 9-for-19 with 26 points on Wednesday. Eight came in one minute early in the first half, then Hughes opened the second with seven points in 2:30.
It’s his team, now with plenty of support as his consistent production from all season has recently been joined by Buddy Boeheim scoring 17.5 PPG in January, Quincy Guerrier emerging as a reliable bench option and finally today by Bourama Sidibe and Brycen Goodine.
2. Free throw shooting
SU’s defensive strides took a hit, such that Syracuse needed all eight free throws to secure victory. Notre Dame hit 28 three-pointers over the zone in two regular season contests. The Irish scored 12 points in 36 seconds on heaves by TJ Gibbs and Rex Pflueger. Marek Dolezaj bought too much into the Joseph Girard III free throw record hype and forced a pass to him that led to an easy finish for John Mooney.
Girard ran away as the final second ticked off and the crowd booed for whatever call they hoped for on the in-bounds. Syracuse did the same, but it counts. The Orange hit 14-of-17 at the line. Guerrier is now 10 for his last 13.
3. Buddy Boeheim, again.
The collapse in the final minute of game time didn’t prove to be the most frustrating. The 15 minutes of real time between 8:17 and 8:32 EST were.
Syracuse led 64-51 with 13 minutes remaining; far from safe. The sight of Sidibe draining a right-hand hook and finishing ahead of the defense in transition to build that lead feigned security anyway (more on that shortly).
Notre Dame had already blown an early 30-19 lead and proceeded to break down Syracuse’s defense to the interior and kick out to open shooters repeatedly. Pflueger and Dane Goodwin caught passes for threes, Prentiss Hubb hit pull-ups in the lane and from three; Mooney hit a jumper, reached the free throw line and dished two assists on a 17-4 run.
Offensively, Syracuse devolved into chucking, with Girard and Boeheim combining to shoot 1-for-6 during the run. Hughes heaved two misses from three, one a flat-footed spot-up on the right wing, before stepping out-of-bounds along the sideline on the possession before Notre Dame took a 69-68 lead.
Buddy redeemed himself. Out of timeout, he drove hard to the rim twice, avoiding the defensive anticipation that drew him his third foul. He grabbed his own miss on the first and finished a put back.
On the second drive, following a 1-for-2 free throw trip by Mooney, Buddy finished clean off glass. After a mad scramble around Mooney on defense, Guerrier dashed in transition and caught Hughes’ outlet for a dunk ahead of everybody. Key momentum from Buddy, again.
4. Defense not good, but timely.
Mooney dropped 21 points, 13 rebounds, six assists with a steal and block. It could’ve been worse, in line with his even-better performance at Syracuse on Jan. 5. The Orange weren’t good defensively in this game, but they locked up 74-70 lead with four minutes remaining.
Jim Boeheim pulled Sidibe in favor of Guerrier. After his dunk, Hughes slid into the lane on Goodwin’s attempted back door pass for a steal. Guerrier blocked Mooney inside on the next possession. Two possessions later, Hughes broke from the paint to the perimeter to cut off a pass attempt by Hubb with the shot clock expiring and 1:11 remaining.
The Orange stopped six straight possessions in crunch time, with Mooney at the center of four. Girard’s offensive rebound on his own miss after Hughes’ steal all but sealed the game.
Won’t steal Kevin’s thunder long here. When Boeheim’s jacket flew off midway through the second half, after Notre Dame’s run reached 14-4, the Orange took off for an 8-3 run. This time the jacket did not contain pictures of Boeheim tossing his jacket off.
The Official Jim Boeheim Jacket Toss Tracker™️ 2019-20 update. pic.twitter.com/cnJT8NQLDi— Kevin Wall (@kwallcuse) January 23, 2020
6. Brycen Goodine, present. Howard Washington, not.
Long before the toss, Matt Park noticed Howard Washington did not warm up. SU told him Washington was available, but Park inferred Washington was not. With a 39-38 lead before half, Buddy passed up a deep three with the shot clock expiring and drove into his third foul on a charge.
Update from Jim Boeheim on Howard Washington: He sprained his ankle at practice yesterday and wasn't able to play today.— Donna Ditota (@DonnaDitota1) January 23, 2020
Jim pointed to Goodine, who had played five minutes since the new year began.
He grabbed offensive rebounds on his first two possessions, one leading to a Sidibe bucket. Sidibe and Guerrier blocked Mooney on consecutive possessions, setting up Goodine for a three after starting the season 0-for-13 outside. After 14 turnovers in 11 games, he avoided any in four minutes of play that sent the Orange to halftime ahead 46-42.
7. The Sidibe game, finally
Long overdue, Sidibe looked confident and dominant. It was fitting after he grabbed zero defensive rebounds in the previous loss to Notre Dame in over 20 minutes.
He grabbed three boards in the first half, finished the first two dumps to him in the post and chased down a long pass that was flying out-of-bounds on the baseline. He flipped it to Boeheim on the perimeter, who found Hughes for three during a 14-5 Syracuse run.
Loose balls outside the paint found his hands. He paid attention as Girard got his shot blocked in the second half, scooped up the miss and finished. Sidibe shot 6-for-6 with 12 points. Two stops on Mooney put a ribbon on the best game of his season and arguably his career.
Even half of this drastically improves SU’s fortunes.
8. Credit due to Jim
Even if this recent success is due to January handing Syracuse the weaker end of the ACC schedule, we’re seeing the annual improvement Jim crafted in recent years with similarly unsung teams compared to his loaded squads from the earlier part of last decade.
The offense stepped into the top-20 this week according to KenPom. More impressively, Syracuse’s defense is hanging around the top-100. It’s a massive work in progress, but with how prolific its top four scorers are producing, they don’t need a massive amount to win these games.
Jim’s faith in Guerrier, Goodine and the trust Washington built has been critical. Boeheim ran his starters nearly the full 40 minutes until the massive Irish run forced a Guerrier sub with five minutes left.
Both Guerrier and Sidibe persevered through intense criticism from their coach to reach this point. Now, this squad that looked dead after non-conference is as alive as any below the top-three in the ACC. February will tell if they can leap to the next level.