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Joe Girard of old helps lift Syracuse men’s basketball to Sweet 16

The Joe Girard of old has returned in Syracuse’s Sweet 16 run, but maybe we should pump the brakes just a tad?

Syracuse v West Virginia Photo by Joe Robbins/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team is still dancing as Jim Boeheim once again advanced his team to the Sweet 16. The timely play and shooting of sophomore point guard Joe Girard played a big part in that.

Through two NCAA Tournament games, Girard has put up 24 points, 14 assists and 12 rebounds on 7-of-16 outside shooting (43.8%). He’s Syracuse’s leading assist man and rebounder (!) throughout the NCAA Tournament. Now, to be fair you or I might be able to rack up a few assists passing to Buddy Boeheim right now, but Girard has played well in post-season play to be sure.

Syracuse doesn’t get past West Virginia without Girard’s first half. With Buddy starting 1-of-6 from the floor, Girard held it down from outside with four triples.

“I was struggling,” Buddy Boeheim said. “Joe was really the only guy that made tough shots.”

Girard made some vital shots in the first half against San Diego State as well. Boeheim kept Syracuse in it initially by scoring 16 of Syracuse’s first 19 points. But Girard’s three shots from long range buried the Aztecs at the end of the first half.

Syracuse v San Diego State Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It’s been an erratic season for Girard. His scoring is down from a year ago and he’s struggled to play consistently. Last year, Girard earned the starting point guard position as a freshman and was steady.

This year, however, was something entirely different. Girard struggled out of the gate, tested positive for COVID-19 in December along with Buddy Boeheim, and put up volatile performances throughout. Perhaps some of the criticism was unfair.

“Joe was up and down a lot this year,” Jim Boeheim said. “He was key in the first half (against West Virginia). He was really good. They did a good job on Joe in the second half.”

Girard — who scored 4,763 points in high school, whose dad played college basketball for John Beilein at Le Moyne, who was mentored by Jimmer Fredette, who won high school state titles in both basketball and football (the latter in the Carrier Dome no less), had his own Wikipedia page at 18 years old, drew comparisons to Gerry McNamara and had the weight of the world on his shoulders — ultimately fell short of the entirely unrealistic expectations the Syracuse fan base had for him.

Essentially, he was billed as the second coming and when he fell short of that, the guy was dragged through the mud. We had warned of such a phenomenon here. This isn’t an I told you so moment as much as it is a warning to be cautious about the mythologies we create, especially of teenagers playing sports.

So, we can be measured here and suggest that Girard has played well. He’s earned the acclaim. The Girard of old (read: most of last year) has returned. He’s making shots and playing off the crowd. He’s broken out of his sophomore slump and he’s done it in timely fashion.

But we can also acknowledge a few things: It also hasn’t been a perfect showing. Girard’s offensive outbursts have occurred in the first halves of both games. There have been some quick heaves in the shot-clock. In the second half against West Virginia, Bob Huggins had his players hard-hedge ball screens and double him. Sometimes he didn’t get the ball out quick enough. He also missed the front-end of a one-and-one up four with 12 seconds to go.

He has a solid 2-1 assist to turnover ratio in post-season play, but he’s also turned it over seven times.

Girard’s play is important to Syracuse. The Orange are 9-2 when he scores double-figures. But Houston is in the weeds with their top ranked defense and they’ll come with some ball pressure. Girard can play well. He’s proven that he can play at this level. Let’s just pump the brakes on expecting him to come out with his hair on fire. If he plays well, that’s great. If he doesn’t, maybe he won’t be criticized so harshly as he has been in the past.