If you told me that Triche and MCW combined to shoot 4-20 from the floor, James Southerland didn’t play, and SU got outrebounded by 6 while scoring only 6 fast-break points and shooting under 30% from distance, I’d say there was no way this team won that game. But that’s because until now we didn’t really know what the freshmen could do.
Wednesday vs. Providence, Syracuse’s trio of freshmen played a total of 7 minutes, totaling 0 points, 0 rebounds, 0 assists, 0 steals, 0-2 from the floor with one turnover. After the game, Boeheim said (correctly) that he’d rather win than give guys minutes — the logical implication (for those of you not adept at reading between lines) being that if he’d played those guys more, the team would have lost. Well, today against Villanova he didn’t have much of a choice. Due to circumstances (more on that in a moment) he was forced to play all three freshmen for extended periods of time. And all three of them came through with significant contributions in SU’s hard-nosed, Dome-streak-extending win over Villanova.
Foremost among the freshmen was Jerami Grant, who played his most minutes of the year (29). But he earned those minutes with a hustling, effective first half performance. He scored 7 points — more than a quarter of the Orange total in the half — and provided a spark of energy to an otherwise listless team. His play, as much as anyone’s, is what kept SU close in that opening period. He then played extensively in the second half as well, and made a couple major plays down the stretch, including making a steal, getting fouled, and hitting both ends of a 1-and-1 at a time when SU’s lead was a mere 3 points. Grant ended the game as SU’s second-leading scorer and tied for the team lead in rebounds.
While Grant made the most of his first-half minutes, Cooney and Coleman each had to wait until the second half to make their marks. After scoring SU’s first field goal of the game, Coleman did not do much in the remainder of the first half, and indeed spent most of it in his usual spot on the bench. But in the second half he had a fine stretch of basketball. Against Nova’s big, relatively experienced front line, he finally used his physicality to his advantage. He had a nice post move for a bucket, and another dunk off a great feed from the top of the key. But he also defended well inside, banging bodies with Yarou and Co. and not ceding an inch of the paint. His quick hands knocked away a couple of entry passes, and the most memorable play was when he battled hard for a loose rebound, a play that ended with a Nova player landing on his ass. Coleman got called for a foul (unjustly in my view) but even so, it was an encouraging sign of life from him.
Cooney’s big moments came late in the half, when he finally hit a pair of threes (after missing his first four attempts of the game), but his contribution went well beyond those six points. Forced to play major minutes due to Triche picking up a cheap 4th foul with 16 minutes left, Cooney was able to avoid the defensive lapses that have cost him time in the past. He played very well at the top of the zone. He’s credited for only one steal officially, but he helped cause a number of Nova turnovers. He also learned his lesson from the Providence game and stayed home on Nova’s shooters. The Cats hardly had a clean look from deep all game, and ended up shooting 22% from long range. And when Cooney finally did drain those two threes, they pushed the SU lead to 14 points and really made the game feel like it was in SU’s win column, even though there were six minutes remaining.
In highlighting the play of these three freshmen, though, I don’t want to suggest in any way that CJ Fair should be overlooked. Fair was undoubtedly the leader in this game. He played amazingly. He’s always been a complementary player, glue guy, garbage man, whatever. But as Big East play has begun, he’s now showed himself to be someone who can put the team on his back. He was unstoppable on offense in the beginning of the second half as SU methodically built their big lead. No matter who Nova put on him, he was quicker and/or stronger and able to get his shots at will. An amazing performance by CJ.
Random observation about Nova: anyone think Arcidiacono is going to be the next Mike Nardi?
Now, to this Southerland thing. Frankly, this is going to be all I say about it, because this is just annoying at this point. I’m not going to waste much energy on this. If he gets his situation figured out and comes back to play, great. If he doesn’t, the team will just have to do their best without him. If it is academic (as seems likely), then it’s particularly dumb on his part. And surprising to get this from a senior, but whatever. It’s his problem and he will fix it or not. I’m tired of stressing over stuff like this. I’m turning into Boeheim in this regard: “We’ll play the people we have.” My only desire for this situation is for it to get settled one way or another, quickly if possible, and permanently for the rest of the season (no “March surprise” please).
And that’s it.
Since there’s no midweek game this week, I’m going to aim to put together another update. And the other big news is that I am heading to Louisville next weekend, so I will be filing a report from deep inside the Yum! Center as SU plays the toughest game on their entire schedule. UL might even be #1 next week (pending the outcome of Michigan’s game tomorrow). See you then.