Fitting that SU’s FTRG (”first true road game”) came on a night when I was making my own road trip, driving 6 hours from DC to glorious chilly Upstate NY. I thought I’d timed it perfectly, arriving at my destination around 6:45, just enough time to get settled in and stretch out from the road before the 7pm tipoff.
Of course, the game tipped at 6:30 for some confused reason. Nuts.
Anyway, I turned on the TV in time to see a clip of Mark Gottfried pumping up his team in the locker room, then immediately find out that SU is down by 6 already (I believe it was 19-13 at the time). Not the way one wants to be greeted. But then a few minutes later I was treated to the greatest seven minute explosion of basketball I think I’ve ever seen. Check out the CBSsports.com game flow - with particular attention to the long flat red line:
As awesome as that was to experience, if you have ever watched a single Syracuse game in your life you knew at halftime that this one was far from over. And indeed, when SU went cold early in the 2nd half (though they still got open looks), and inexplicably failed to get back on defense a few times, the Pack came roaring back and tied it up. The crowd was going mad, the momentum was all in State’s favor. So what happened next?
First, the unsung hero of the night stepped up. Over a span of roughly 2 1/2 minutes, CJ Fair scored 7 straight SU points (with one NC State layup in between), a sequence that he finished with a ridiculous three-point play, to single-handedly blunt the State run, quiet the crowd, and stabilize the Orange ship. Then a little later, when a State three-pointer cut the lead to 63-61, SU went on their second major run of the night, the one nobody is talking about. It wasn’t quite 23-0, but from the 8:47 mark to the 1:00 mark, SU outscored NC State 23-7. It started with Dion Waiters hitting a huge three to immediately answer State’s, and it just kind of rolled from there. All of SU’s points in this run were scored by Waiters (5), Kris Joseph (8), and Antonio “El Cucharon Grande” Jardine (10). Scoop in particular played great during this stretch, controlling the game and taking good shots. And I don’t say that just because they went in. State had shifted the focus of their perimeter defense to Dion, so Scoop simply took advantage of what the defense was giving him.
Credit for this win also goes to the coaching staff. The zone defense was stretched and morphed once again, in a way I do not remember seeing before. State has this sharpshooter named Wood who had hit a ridiculous 57% of his threes this season. But the four perimeter guys were all over Wood wherever he went. The guards were extending way, way out high when he was up there. That’s not too unusual, but what was remarkable was how the forwards also came way up on the sides whenever Wood was positioned on a wing. You saw Joseph, Fair, and Southerland stepping out well above the free-throw line over and over again, denying Wood open looks. He finished the game 2-6 from deep, 8 points overall. (And one of those two made shots was a 30-footer, just because he can.) This defensive philosophy certainly had its consequences, as the center of the zone became much less crowded, and NC State was sometimes able to get open jumpers in the paint. But there were also plenty of times when the SU center stepped out towards the foul line, inviting an interior pass instead of a shot — and NC State fumbled maybe a half-dozen of those passes out of bounds. Once again, Boeheim knew where the weakest parts of State’s offense were, and designed their defense to force those weak parts to carry the day. He does this all the time. It’s the secret to his success, though it isn’t really much of a secret, but it’s certainly under-discussed. Every coach (supposedly) does this, but somehow Jimmy routinely makes it work. Whether it is forcing the center to make jump shots or trapping the guy who is too in love with his dribble, Boeheim knows your weakness and will exploit the shit out of it.
Finally, I want to give a tip of the cap to the rebounding effort, which has been lacking for the past couple games. Coming in, folks were saying that NC State had the ability to kill SU on the glass. Now, there weren’t a ton of rebounds to be had, as both teams shot well over 50% from the floor. But SU battled NC State just about to a standstill on the boards, with the Wolfpack ultimately ending with a 28-26 advantage. You’d of course like to see the numbers be better than that, but after two poor showings in the rebounding department, the trend is in the right direction.
I’m now arrived in Syracuse for the holidays, so I’ll be able to give some first-person accounts of the next couple games at the Dome. And maybe I’ll buy a “#1″ t-shirt at Manny’s. (Maybe not.)