Syracuse’s win over North Carolina yesterday was a thing of beauty — as long as you don’t care about shooting percentages. Which I don’t. Sure, it’s nice when you hit shots and it fires up the crowd, but in my dotage I’ve become much more of a fan of SU’s defense. And boy were they playing defense yesterday. The shot blocking was ridiculous. The hustle was turned up to 11. Scrapping, clawing, tipping passes, smothering opposing players. Everything worked just as it’s supposed to, and the result was a historically bad day for the Tarheels.
It helped, I guess, that UNC does not have many legitimate outside threats. After enduring periods of unreasonable long-range bombing from both Miami and Virginia Tech, it was refreshing to face an opponent who didn’t make a bunch of 30-footers. But SU (read: Cooney) was almost as bad from outside in this game, but they had so many more possessions thanks to rebounding, steals, and hustle. Whatever they are putting into Jerami Grant’s Gatorade before the games now, don’t stop. That kid has turned into the Tasmanian Devil out there, whirling around like a madman and consuming every loose ball that comes his way.
It’s funny, but I am only now starting to believe that this team has a chance to go deep into the tournament. And it’s not because they have “so many weapons”, because we’ve seen some bad shooting performances from the Orange this year. It’s because of the defense, which they rode to the Final Four last year and which, despite an entirely new starting backcourt, is still really, really good. Only two of SU’s sixteen opponents have reached 70 points this year: Fordham and Cal. Meanwhile, eight of the sixteen have been held to 54 points or less, including all three ACC opponents to date, and Indiana. That’s just dominant defense. And bodes well for the future. I am quick to assume the worst and always hesitate to believe, but it’s getting harder and harder not to.