For the fifth time this season, the Syracuse men’s basketball team lost a game by five points or less. The Orange are 3-5 on the season in close games, not including an 8-point overtime win over Virginia.
Closing out games remains a major problem for this group and it reared its ugly head on Saturday against FSU. With less than four minutes left, the Orange held a 68-64 advantage, but once again couldn’t finish down the stretch. A win against the Seminoles would have been enormous. Sadly, poor execution in clutch situations and a bad defense allowed the game to slip away.
Now we turn our sights to another top 10 opponent, the Louisville Cardinals. On Wednesday at 7 pm in Kentucky, the Orange will get their last chance at a signature win. Let’s take a look at the five keys to the game and what to watch for.
1. The invisible man
Against Florida State, Buddy Boeheim scored a whopping zero points. After a season of seemingly limitless range from the outside, Boeheim went 0-5 from the perimeter and 0-7 overall. It’s the first time since January 9th, 2019 that he was held scoreless, and in that game he played just three minutes. Boeheim played 33 against the Seminoles.
That kind of production just can’t happen if the Orange want to win games. We need to see a productive Buddy Boeheim on Wednesday night. He needs to be active on the perimeter and be willing to drive the ball into the paint. He is at his most effective when he can break down his defender off the dribble and get into the lane. It makes him a much more dynamic player and not just someone the other team has to face guard on the perimeter.
Look for a rebound game for Boeheim against the Cardinals.
2. The super frosh
Joe Girard III has scored 52 points in his last two games, to go along with 12 rebounds, six assists, two steals, and only two turnovers. Girard has had an incredible run over the past couple of games. In all honesty, he has already far exceeded my expectations for the season.
The only problem with Girard is that his decision making in crunch time has not been great. He has continuously launched bad shots in clutch situations, and it has cost the Orange down the stretch. And to be completely fair, that is entirely expected of a freshman trying to be a go-to scoring option.
But it has also cost the Orange multiple possessions in close games that ended up being turning points in the game. We need Girard to be better down the stretch.
Hopefully he can put together a great game against Louisville and close things out with a win.
3. The defensive sieve
The Syracuse Orange are having a historically bad defensive season. In fact, Syracuse are having their worst season defensively in the KenPom era. They are even worse than the Andrew White III, John Gillon team that could seemingly stop no one.
The problem is that it’s not just one position that’s a problem. It’s almost all of them. The top of the zone is slow to close out on three-point shooters (in the last two games, both Florida State and NC State shot 11-25 from the outside) and slow to react to dribble penetration.
Down low, the back line of the zone has been consistently caught out of position, often over-rotating or just not stepping up quickly enough to contest the 10-18 foot shots. And let’s not even get into the foul situation.
If the Orange have any shot against Louisville, they are going to need to ratchet up the defensive intensity to an 11. We need the top of the zone to contest every single shot and get in front of Louisville’s guards. We need the back line to get a hand in the face of every mid-range jumper, and not give up the easy twos due to poor rotations and awareness. If we can hold the Cardinals to sub-40 percent shooting, both inside and outside the three-point line, the Orange have an excellent chance to steal the game.
4. How healthy is Hughes?
Elijah Hughes had a monstrous game against Florida State. While watching the first half, I couldn’t even look at the screen when Elijah slipped and did basically a full split on the court. I thought that was the end of his season. Instead, he went beast mode to the tune of 25 points and almost single-handedly upended Florida State.
But even in such an incredible performance, it was abundantly clear that Hughes was not 100 percent. There were several times I saw him hobbling back on defense, unable to do much more than get into position and do the best he could to cover his corner of the court. He saved his explosiveness for the offensive end. It was still almost enough, but not quite.
I’m very nervous that Hughes will still be sore on Wednesday night and it will be his defense that continues to suffer. We need Hughes at 100 percent if we want to claim a win, so hopefully the past couple of days have been enough time for Hughes to get treatment and be in solid game shape for Wednesday.
5. Winning the turnover battle
One of the biggest reasons we were able to hang with Florida State on Saturday was our ability to turn them over coupled with limited turnovers from our team. We committed just 11 turnovers to Florida State’s 18.
Winning the turnover battle against Louisville will be key to winning the game. If we can keep our own turnovers in check and force the Cardinals into bad passes and costly mistakes, Syracuse basketball can absolutely come away with a win here.