Thrive and advance

On Friday, describing (after the fact) the expectations I’d had for the UNC-Asheville game, I said this:

SU would probably have trouble early (like they usually do) and I’d be aggravated for no reason, until they turned on the gas at some point and pulled away to win by 15-20 points.

Turns out I was off by approximately 45 hours.

Welcome back, dynamic Syracuse offense! You’ve been missed for the majority of the past two months. Yet everything fell back into rhythm in Saturday’s second half. Three-pointers were falling like rain. Open shots were as plentiful as laptops in a UConn player’s backpack. And it all happened when Scoop rediscovered his mojo. He had a rough first half, with just 2 points and 4 turnovers, including two terrible plays on consecutive late possessions that earned him a seat on the bench. But in the second half he was brilliant. 14 points on 4-5 shooting, 5 assists against only 2 turnovers, playing all 20 minutes. To borrow a cliche, the senior stepped up and led the team. It was really his first extended good minutes since the South Florida game a month ago. And not a moment too soon.

Boeheim said in the postgame press conference that KSU’s defense was oriented in a way that denied a lot of passes to the wings, and instead encouraged you to drive the lane. Not a bad strategy, when you have Jordan Henriquez back there blocking 2.5 shots a game. But it failed against an Orange attack that is at its best when the guards are penetrating the lane and making things happen. When SU’s offense bogs down, it’s because the team is taking too many stand-still threes or forcing jumpers. But when Scoop, Dion, and Brandon are bulling their way into the paint and hitting floaters (Scoop) or leaners (Brandon) or ridiculous and-one layups (Dion), that’s when the offense really gets going. This penetration is what led to the continuous parade of wide-open three-point looks that SU got, and hit. The weak link in KSU’s defense was Spradling. During the key stretch of the 2nd half when SU finally extended their lead, Scoop and Dion just kept attacking him. Whichever of those two players he was guarding, that was the guy who would take the ball and drive it at the rim. And KSU’s supposed shot-blocking prowess was nowhere to be found. They literally blocked zero shots all game, despite averaging 5 per game as a team. SU’s guards were just too good with the ball.

On the other end, the zone defense once again worked its magic. At the very start of the game KSU looked like they had an effective plan in place for attacking the SU defense, but I guess that was just Boeheim’s “feeling-out period” for what Frank Martin had decided to do. Once SU figured out what K-State was planning, they effectively shut the plan down. The play that got Henriquez a wide-open dunk early on never worked again, as the Orange wings (particularly Southerland) began pinching down into the paint more often. JB quickly fine-tuned the zone to counter KSU’s attack, and the Wildcat offense immediately went comatose. How many K-State possessions featured their guards somewhat listlessly passing the ball around the perimeter, vainly looking for an opening? MacGruder got his quota of floaters in the lane, but KSU was rarely able to get the ball to its big men in any sort of reasonable scoring position. And when they did get the ball down low, the interior defense of Southerland, Christmas, and even Keita while he was in there, was excellent. They blocked 8 shots between the three of them, and altered numerous others. Henriquez shot 7-17, despite coming into the game with a 56% field goal percentage. A similar fate befell Gipson (2-9 Saturday, 51% on the year), their other big man. Of course they were missing their top scoring forward, but nobody in orange has any sympathy for that! All in all a fine defensive effort from the front line. SU’s rebounding was suspect, but everyone expected that coming in. (And in truth, it was really just a first-half problem. SU outboarded KSU in the second half 16-13.)

I tell you what, other than the continuing struggles of CJ Fair, everyone on SU contributed mightily to this win. We’ve already mentioned Scoop’s stellar 2nd half. Dion made his mark early, pulling SU out of the funk that surrounded the first five minutes or so. Kris Joseph played a steady game all the way through. K-State was keying on him for much of the contest, but he picked his spots well and repeatedly drove the lane instead of falling in love with his step-back jumper. He shot just 2-7 from the floor, but most of those misses were plays where he was purposefully drawing contact, just not enough to get a foul call. He did end up at the line four times, going 7-8 from the stripe. Southerland’s contribution on defense was huge all game, and then he had his own offensive explosion midway through the 2nd half that really opened up some breathing room for SU. Christmas played a man’s game in the middle on defense to make up for the Fabsence, but also had six points in a 90-second span early in the 2nd half as part of an 11-3 mini-run that pushed SU’s lead up to 10. Granted, all of those points came on wide-open layups and dunks where the guards drew the defense and then found him, but still. He made K-State pay for leaving him open to double other guys. Triche did not fill up the stat sheet the way his two backcourt mates did, but he played 24 smart minutes.

My optimism — which had been reasonably potent Wednesday but plummeted Thursday — is back on the upswing. But before taking the next step, I’m going to savor SU’s return to the Sweet Sixteen for a little while. I’ve said all along — with Fab or without him — that the Sweet Sixteen is the benchmark for a successful season. And here they are, again. There will be plenty of time to put this in context and to break down the matchup with Wisconsin. But I’m enjoying this win too much to start worrying about the team from Madison just yet. However, I will say this:

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