The No. 1-ranked Orange (23-0, 10-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) were paced by C.J. Fair's 19-point, seven-rebound night that helped takedown another slowdown offense by an ACC opponent and a second-half in which SU played a majority of it without its two centers, Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita.
Keita, the high-energy, 6-foot-10 senior, left the game midway through the first half after suffering what is being called a right knee sprain, which happened when he was trying to make a defensive play. It is unclear how long Keita will be out, as the Orange have a tough road contest at the Pittsburgh Panthers on Wednesday. However, Sunday's biggest issue concerning the senior's injury came when Christmas committed his fourth foul and had to sit with 13:16 to go in the game with SU leading 39-33.
The junior's foul trouble forced head coach Jim Boeheim to play a lineup he hadn't needed to play in a game this season, as small forward Fair was moved to power forward, sophomore forward Jerami Grant moved to center and backup guard Michael Gbinije shifted into the small-forward slot.
Luckily, the Orange were able to make a few stops on defense and turn them into buckets, which helped them increase their lead to 42-33 with 11:48 remaining.
The bigger cushion gave SU some room to work with, as Clemson settled down on offense and went inside against Grant using Jaron Blossomgame and Josh Smith.
After a television timeout, Grant, Gbinije and Fair came out with a bit more energy as they tried to bang more inside. Grant used one of his best attributes -- his scrappiness -- to his advantage against bigger opponents.
Grant was able to use his slim frame to closeout on a rebound, while his athleticism was too much for some of Clemson's big men on offense.
We will get back to that last offensive possession in a second, but first, here's few more adjustments Grant, Gbinije and Fair made on the back row of the 2-3 zone. The first adjustment was to get a bit more active and then it was to use their length to cause issues and force a bad shot while the shot clock came to an end.
Okay, now back to that Grant inside bucket, which pushed SU's lead to 50-40 with 4:45 remaining in the game.
The first cut will show what Grant playing center can do to Syracuse's offense -- make it more athletic and versatile because opposing big men need to come out and guard Grant. This helps create a lot of space in the paint. That space helps create a nice high-low game with the guards, and if executed correctly, can lead to easy buckets for the skilled forward.
With all that said, Syracuse's offense and defense is better when Keita or Christmas are in the game. (Shocking, I know!). This clip, which was taken after Christmas checked back into the game, shows it is a lot harder to body-up the 'Cuse AND, on offense, tip-ins are easier to come by because that's what Rak and The Matrix do really well.
Also, Syracuse is a lot better when Grant can do this at the power-forward position...
Oh, and Fair can have his way at small forward. Something he did all game against the Tigers.
As Boeheim mentioned in his post-game press conference, the Orange were able to overcome the loss of Keita and Christmas with better shooting -- SU was 5-for-9 fro the floor and 3-for-4 from the charity stripe when Rak went out. Clemson's inability to score helped too.
(Quick writer's comment: Mediocre college basketball teams can try all they want to muck-up and slow down games, but when you struggle to score 50 points they're not going to win many games. That's just a fact. Learn how to freakin' score instead of playing terrible basketball.)
All-in-all, a win is a win. The loss of Keita didn't hurt much in this game, but it will moving forward. The biggest key is making sure Keita is 100 percent healthy (big men with knee injuries always make me worry). At 23-0, Syracuse doesn't need to try and win every game moving forward.
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