While most of the spotlight is on Syracuse hoops, Orange Nation should also be paying attention to a lax team (5-1, 2-0) that has really started to deliver halfway through the season. SU is adopting a previously un-Syracuse style of play that is proving to fit the bill perfectly, as it travels to Villanova tonight.
The season began dripping in uncertainty, as the program completed possibly the biggest talent flush in its history. A school that had won back-to-back titles less than five years ago and written the book on the sport for two decades found itself robbed of true star power and the recipient of a lowly #12/13 preseason ranking. Tom Palasek, Tim Desko and Kevin Drew are all gone to the pros. As if that wasn’t a big enough blow to the locker room leadership corps, Murphy’s Law struck and the team found out it would begin ’13 without two of the nation’s best transfers.
A green group looking for its identity on offense gingerly entered the field of competition in late February, only to have its obvious scoring shortcomings exposed in the Dome by Albany in a 16-15 double-OT stumble. Even though it would rally the next week on defense to put Army to rest 6-2, there weren’t a lot of concrete observations besides obvious inexperience to take away from the team’s 1-1 start.
A gutsy 9-8 OT upset over then #6 Virginia the next week would change all of that. As senior defensive general Brian Megill reminded everyone following the statement win, “We are Syracuse University. We can win games like this. We do win games like this.”
Fittingly, SU shut the lights out on UVA on the shoulders of one of its up-and-coming talents, sophomore attackman Kevin Rice. His overtime bomb ended it all and sent 5,388 fans home with a new outlook on a young team nobody knew anything about three weeks earlier.
With emotions running high, SU looked to its longtime leader and the game’s most successful coach, John Desko, for some sort of plan. Desko answered with a characteristic, surgically designed game approach which drew on the strengths of a slower, more methodical style of play better suited to young athletes. It led to a key 13-11 win over trap opponent St. John’s, and most recently a second major upset of #4 Johns Hopkins on Saturday. SU capitalized on a quick start and played its stone wall defense to hold off the Jays 13-8 at the Dome.
“You know, for years teams have been playing against us holding the ball, trying to be patient, holding it for a few minutes at a time, and then when we got the ball, we were trying to make something happen right away,” Desko said, “That’s been reversed a little bit this year. We’ve been playing within ourselves. We’re not trying to slow it down, but we know what kind of team we are. We’ve got to work for really good shots.”
Desko’s new approach is spot on. Syracuse has had a reputation for playing run and gun because it has always had the star power on offense. For a long time, it worked. However, when those stars either graduated or were sidelined due to injury, as has been the case in the last two years, things became foreign to a promising, but very fresh, new personnel. SU was trying to fit a round peg into a square hole, and it was making them a so-so team that had trouble getting anything on net. Adding that Desko couldn’t field a successful face off taker, and you have the recipe for exactly what we’ve seen until these last few games: mediocrity.
Enter the pass-the-ball, wait-for-good-looks, read-the-defense mindset that Desko drew up on his chessboard. Now, SU’s young strikers have a near perfect idea of what their roles are, and it makes for surgical efficiency on offense.
It’s not that SU doesn’t have any star power left, but the balance of talent has definitely evened out. There are still great players like senior captain midfielder JoJo Marasco (who is having an insane senior season) and midfielder Luke Cometti who are just downright special when they’re on their games. Desko is able to rely on both his younger guys and the “X-factors,” and it means SU is a multi-threat team that has really started to show some postseason promise.
There are still major tests ahead. SU’s schedule still has tough matchups like Princeton, Cornell, and especially Notre Dame, who it’ll take on under the bright lights of Metlife Stadium in the Konica Minolta Big City Classic.
Time will tell if Syracuse has finally recovered from the talent drain that has belabored a program so used to total domination. Next up is ‘Nova tonight, and the new look Orange will likely be up to the challenge.
Posted: Jake Moskowitz