I think that was the most impressive win so far this year. Or maybe I am just biased since it is the newest. But honestly. This game should scare our future opponents.
First, it was on the road. I don’t care how many SU fans made the trip, playing the University of Florida in the state of Florida is a damn road game. OK, Tampa is about a 2 hour drive from Gainesville, not quite as close as the 41 minutes from Lawrence to Kansas City that we faced last year but still well within an evening’s commute for any self-respecting college student. And besides, even if the students didn’t make the trip, there are undoubtedly tons of UF fans living in the greater Tampa area. Let me put it this way. If the game was being played in Albany, do you think anyone calls it a neutral court? Hells no. (Nor should they.) So we have demonstrated the ability to beat a good team on — yes — the road. Check that one off the list of unanswered questions.
Second, we made three (3) three-pointers the entire game. THREE. Three out of 13, for those keeping track. A whopping .231 percentage, after coming into the game shooting 42% on the year. So we have demonstrated the ability to win even when a major part of our offense goes missing. Check that one off the list of unanswered questions.
Third, the free throw bug bit us tonight. After a few games of solid work from the stripe, we reverted to form, missing 13 out of 31 attempts. The cliché is that bad free throw shooting will cost you in close games against good teams. But it turns out that we can even survive a poor night from the line against a good team. (To look at it from another perspective, if we’d made 21/31 foul shots — not even 70%, mind you — this would have been a 20-point win. Please be aware that I hate this type of “argument” since it is based on the supreme fallacy that the rest of the events in the game would have transpired in exactly the same way. So maybe we win by 24. Or 19. Or maybe only 8. Who knows. Never mind. The point is, we rocked it again.)
Fourth, we turned the ball over alarmingly often. The box score says 15 but that seems low to me. Maybe because many of the turnovers were so mind-numbing. Scoop got his pocket clean picked twice simply trying to bring the ball up against a single defender (and Scoop is supposed to be the quick one of the PG tandem). Consecutive possessions in the 2nd half, while the game was still tight, resulted in passes out of bounds when Rick Jackson zigged while his teammate expected him to zag. But even with some of that crap, we still handled our business.
So I guess what I’m saying is: adversity. Haven’t had an awful lot of that this season. For the most part it has looked easy pretty much all the time, against big and little foes alike. But we passed the test. In an unfamiliar arena, with an offense that was out of step for several stretches, against a talented and tested team, we came up strong once again.
Obvious credit goes to Jackson for his monster first half; if not for his efforts we are probably down 6 instead of up 6 at halftime. He ends up leading the team with either 19 points (according to the AP) or 21 points (according to ESPN). He is the sixth person to lead the team in scoring so far, in just nine games. The only regular who has yet to lead the team in scoring is Kris Joseph. And all he did tonight was turn in a double-double. Opposing coaches are going to have nightmares scheming to stop the incredible offensive balance on this team. Also big props to Commander Wes for shaking off his worst half of the year (4 points on 2-7 from the floor, 0-2 from the foul line) and putting up big numbers in the 2nd half (5-5 from the floor, 2-3 at the line, 13 points), most of them in big spots. Really, everyone did his part and that’s what this team is all about. Even with the awful outside shooting, we were still over 50% from the field in the game. The only guy with sub-par numbers was Arinze, but he is in large part responsible for Jackson’s explosion, since UF could really only match up with one of them at a time. They focused on Onuaku and Rick went to town in the paint. (By the way, Vernon Macklin? Now we know why you transferred out of the Big East. Way to show up with your five points and four rebounds. Hoya.)
But once again, as in every game this season, the key to the win was defense. One can talk about the successes and struggles of the offense all one wants, but it’s the defense that once again rules the day. Florida shot a decent 43% from the floor (40% from deep), which is the best showing by an SU opponent all season (previous best was Cornell at 41%; Cal shot an even 40% and the others have all been below 40%). They are a quick team and at times they were able to make our forwards look slow in their rotations on the wing. They hit a bunch of threes to keep it close, but it’s a staple of the Boeheim 2-3 strategy that you can bomb away from three all you want; more often than not you’ll have a hand in your face, and you won’t hit nearly as many as you think you ought to. We’ll take the occasional loss to a team that is legitimately hot from outside (usually Notre Dame) but for the most part you play right into his hands by launching deep ball after deep ball.
The stat that I am absolutely loving is the 13 steals. That’s THIRTEEN STEALS. Most of which led to transition baskets, helping to offset our poor outside shooting by getting points the easy way. But the steals are nothing new. What showed up in this game for the first time all season was rebounding. SU actually outrebounded Florida by a healthy margin, 43-31. Three guys had 10+ boards apiece, and Jackson had 7 rebounds just on the offensive end, where he did so much of his first-half damage. Rebounding out of the zone is always a bit lacking. Granted, Florida is not particularly big and beefy, but we’ve been getting busted on the boards by smaller teams all year. For instance, we only outrebounded Columbia by 5. Whether it was a particular point of emphasis by the coaches, or adjustments by individual players, or just a statistically improbable collection of fortuitous bounces, we took damn good care of the glass tonight and it was a refreshing change.
So, we’re now officially the media darlings. Word is that Bob Knight likes us a lot. (Whatever. We don’t need your analysis, Coach. Go enjoy your local salad bar.) Andy Katz compared us to the 2005-06 Florida Gators championship team, who also began the year unranked after losing a number of key players from the previous season. I would say “Expect to see a bunch more stories over the next couple of days anointing us legitimate title contenders” except that you know the sports waves and webs are going to be full of naught but Brian Kelly for the next day or so, and then it’s NFL on Sunday where there are Big Games with Playoff Implications. So the media attention will be more sparse than it otherwise could have been. But even so, I’m finding it a bit awkward to have launched from a preseason bubble team to a “favorite” to make it to Indianapolis in the span of three weeks. It just doesn’t feel right. I’m almost hoping for Doug Gottlieb to come out tomorrow and say “You know, Syracuse is really not as good as everyone says.” Almost. It’s strange to think that, barring some sort of cosmic-scale upheaval, we’ll be in the top 5 when January rolls around and conference play begins… but just six weeks ago we were losing an exhibition game and resigning ourselves a long tense season of bubble-watching.
But no, here we are with our highest ranking since Hakim Warrick was dunking over that guy on Notre Dame who looked like Predator. I’m not naïve enough to think that we will remain there all season. There are bound to be some bumps along the way. The Big East has some great teams, many of whom are less likely to be flummoxed by the zone. Calhoun, in particular, always seems to have a plan to counter the 2-3. (By the way, I am already looking forward to the UConn-SU game for the simple reason that it pits Onuaku vs. Okwandu. I hope against hope that Len “Hakim Warwick” Elmore is calling that game.) But the season is on the solidest footing possible at this stage, and the team has shown that it has the capacity to do great things. And I’m OK to let it play out and see what happens. Let’s not spoil it by getting into the mindset that we “ought to” make the Final Four, that anything else would be a disappointment. It’s too easy to get into that frame of mind when you constantly hear the world telling you that you’re one of the best. From where I sit right now, the season is already a smashing success. I’ve enjoyed the first six weeks as much as any season in recent memory. I want to just keep hanging on for the ride, wherever it may end up taking me.
It’s easy to say that now, basking in the glow of yet another awesome win. And, sports hypocrite that I am, I will undoubtedly change my tune after we lose a couple in a row sometime down the line. But this team has been such a joy to follow so far that right now I’m content to just feel good about the whole thing. Y’know?