Tonight it was as if I was waking up from a six-month coma. Once again there was Syracuse basketball to be had. Real, live Syracuse University hoops, against an actual* opponent. So what if the result didn’t count for beans, so what if there were under 9,000 at the Dome, and so what if Mookie Jones came in with 10 minutes left in the first half. This was an antidote for my troubles. This was water to slake my driest thirst. This was Preparation H for the hemorrhoids of my basketball-deprived soul.
The story of the night is the apparent arrival of Fab Melo. Not just that he led the team with 12 points. He had a lot more energy than last season, and looked a lot more polished and coordinated. He was running and jumping all over the place. He dunked a couple of times, and actually got up off the floor to do it. He flew back on defense to challenge a fast-break. He hit a medium-range jumper (and nearly hit another). He caught every pass that was thrown his way, cleanly. He even hit 2 of 3 free throws. Just as importantly, he only committed one foul in 18 minutes of action. Fabolous certainly seems to have taken a big step forward (even if this was only an Xzibition game).
Other than Fab, good efforts were turned in by CJ Fair (who smoothly hit a three-pointer, making everyone drool all over their Twitter boxes) and Dion Waiters (who might be even more explosive this season than last). Rakeem Christmas is raw yet, but showed some flashes of serious ability. He started the game at power forward and looks like he’s way ahead of where guys like Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku were as freshmen. Keita looked good too, blocking and changing shots, hitting the boards well, and even breaking out a couple of new post-up moves. And Scoop played a nice, almost “workmanlike” floor game with 7 assists and 9 points, staying mostly under control. Nothing flashy from him. Which is fine by me.
Syracuse played man-to-man defense nearly the whole game, other than when CSULA was inbounding the ball on the Syracuse side of the floor. The defense was pretty good in general, though helped by the fact that nobody from CSULA could reliably create his own shot. The exception was the full-court press that they tried out. It created maybe two turnovers, but CSULA almost always broke it easily and got pretty good looks because of it. So that needs work.
The offense was, well, let’s be charitable and say “rusty”. After the first ten minutes or so, teamwork and offensive discipline kind of went out the window for a while and guys were just chucking up whatever shots they felt like, and not a lot of them were falling. A lot of bad jump-shooting from everyone not named Trevor Cooney. Brandon Triche was 2-11 from the floor and seemed completely out of it all night. Southerland airballed two 3-point attempts (and got pushed around a bit trying to rebound). Kris Joseph missed a couple wide-open threes and generally was content to defer to his teammates. This wouldn’t concern me at all except that he did that a lot last year too, and we are hoping he becomes “the man” this year, and takes it more upon himself to score the ball. (To be clear, I’m only a tiny bit concerned about this, because let’s face it: there was no real need for him to assert himself at all. So it’s just a smidge of uncertainty about whether he will do it when the games matter. I’m still choosing to be optimistic on that point.)
It was clear, though, that the lack of a cohesive offense was primarily a result of the game’s exhibition status and the clearly overmatched opponent. And with that, it was probably a good thing that CSULA cut the Orange lead to 3 with a couple of minutes left in the first half. It hopefully helped teach the lesson that even “lesser” opponents are still skilled basketball players and can take you out if you aren’t careful and don’t put forth a sustained effort. It’s a lesson that we fans know well, as does Boeheim, but it’s a lesson that must be learned each year by the younger players, frustrating as it may be to those of us watching. And it seemed like the coaches emphasized it at halftime, because when the second half started there was far less gunning and far more determination to get the ball inside. Waiters in particular had great success taking it to the rim (he was 0-3 from deep but 4-5 on 2s, including a couple of nasty fast break dunks). The small halftime lead quickly swelled back up into the 20-point range, and that was that.
All 12 scholarship players got in the game but it certainly looked like the pecking order is already established. All four returning starters remain in the lineup (I guess you can call Fab a returning starter even though Keita was starting by the end of last season). As mentioned earlier, Christmas is replacing Rick Jackson at the 4 spot. And he (Christmas) did spend a bit of time last night playing center, though since they played so much man we have no information yet about whether he can play that position in the zone. The 2nd unit is Keita, Fair, Southerland, Waiters, and Michael Carter-Williams, who looked decent but is still adjusting to the college game. “Gerry” Cooney reminds me of Scott McCorkle, both in his build and his stroke. If he plays meaningful minutes this season they’ll probably be as the “designated shooter”. It’s not that he lacks skills. It’s just that there are too many guys ahead of him whose games are more complete. (And I expect he will be far better than McCorkle when all is said and done.) And Mookie, unfortunately, seems to have taken a step backward. Or maybe he just was having a bad night. But he fouled out in 8 minutes of action and looked a step out of rhythm all night long. To his credit, his offense has matured — he is no longer chucking up shots the moment he touches the ball. In fact he only took one shot all night, and that was late in the 2nd half. Still, he was the 11th man in the game and it’s hard to see how he will get any serious playing time ahead of these guys.
Once the games get tough, my guess is that (barring injury) the bench rotation pares down to Keita, Waiters, and Fair, with only infrequent appearances by MCW and Jimmy South. Because no matter what Boeheim may say about his team being “deeper than ever”, you know that he is going to play his top guys as much as possible. That’s what he does. Every year. Without fail. You can set your watch by it. Consider: Waiters was the only guard sub last year, and they had a pretty good year. No reason he can’t do that again. MCW is clearly not yet at the level of the three returning guards. So he won’t play nearly as much. As for the forwards, Fair and Southerland each had their periods of extended action last season, but based on tonight it looks like Fair has improved on offense, and maintained or improved his “nose for the ball” ability, while Southerland is basically the same as last year: a streaky shooter, period. Fair is much better at doing dirty work in the paint — rebounding and scrounging for loose balls — and that is an area where this team will need more help from its bench. Southerland has yet to show that he has the mental tenacity to throw elbows down low with regularity. He didn’t really have it last year and he didn’t have it tonight. He can shoot the lights out when he’s hot, but this team doesn’t need that as much. His game needs a little less Donte Greene and a little more Kristof Ongenaet if he wants to really contribute this year. So I bet Fair gets most of the time backing up Joseph and Christmas.
I know that one exhibition game is far, far too small of a sample size from which to draw these sorts of conclusions. But I can’t help myself. I’m just so excited to have SU basketball to talk about again that I’m going overboard. So, hold me to these predictions. Berate me as a know-nothing when Trevor Cooney averages 12ppg in Big East play. I don’t care. Bring it on. Because whether I’m right or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that SYRACUSE BASKETBALL EXISTS.