About 12 minutes into Syracuse’s 2016-17 basketball season, Taurean Thompson yanked down a defensive rebound, and fired an outlet pass to John Gillon. Gillon trotted across halfcourt, taking two leisurely dribbles, and stared down Tyler Roberson, who was streaking down the left side of the floor. As Gillon stood on top of Jim Boeheim’s signature in the center of the Carrier Dome hardwood, he floated a lob toward the far side of the rim. Roberson skied toward the backboard, snatched the ball in midair, and flushed it through the hoop with two hands.
It was the senior forward’s fourth dunk — and second alley-oop — of the first half, which he would end with 16 points (just four off his career high of 20). The play was a microcosm of the Orange’s 83-55 season-opening win over Colgate, in which Jim Boeheim’s team looked flat-out fun.
Syracuse shot the lights out, terrorized the Raiders with a monstrous-looking 2-3 zone, and, looked like the motorized army from Mad Max: Fury Road on the fastbreak.
“Our focus was running the floor, getting out in transition,” said Thompson, a freshman forward who finished with seven rebounds in his first collegiate game. “I feel like I run like a deer. I can beat a lot of people up the court.”
Most players on the SU roster should share that sentiment. The new-look Orange, with five players who weren’t on the team last year, is most dangerous when it grabs a defensive board and runs. To say Syracuse dominated Colgate in transition would be an understatement — the final tally was 23-0.
Gillon, the “forgotten” graduate transfer whose spotlight is sometimes stolen by Andrew White III, was electrifying in his first game in Orange. The former Colorado State guard is a blur on the floor, and he combines an uncanny, almost Kyrie Irving-esque ability to finish at the rim with expansive range on his jump shot. Gillon, having played three seasons of Division I college basketball, is a smart, savvy player; he finished with six assists and no turnovers on Saturday night. At an even 6-feet tall — and that might be generous — Gillon doesn’t look imposing, but he’s a fantastic player who scores efficiently and distributes the ball effectively.
Gillon was one-half of a point guard duo that may have been the story of the game. Sophomore Franklin Howard was even more impressive, finishing with 11 points, nine assists (six of which came in the first nine minutes), four rebounds, four steals, and three turnovers. The most significant figure in his packed box score line, though, was this one: 4-4 FG (3-3 3P). Yes, Franklin Howard attempted three shots from beyond the arc, and made all of them. After the third one, he did Carmelo Anthony’s signature three-pointer celebration.
Howard’s improved jump shot is a striking development, one season after he looked afraid to pull the trigger from any spot on the floor that didn’t have paint on it. He did miss both his free throw attempts (Syracuse finished a putrid 8-19 from the charity stripe), so his stroke may not be completely fixed. But if Howard can consistently knock down triples, it would unlock a new level for the Orange offense, which can realistically put five shooters on the floor at the same time (assuming Tyler Lydon figures out his jumper at some point).
Coming into the season, it felt like Howard could follow in the footsteps of one of two former Syracuse floor generals who flashed potential during promising freshman seasons: Kaleb Joseph, who flamed out and now plays for Creighton, or Michael Carter-Williams, who blossomed into arguably the best player on a Final Four team as a sophomore, and now plays for the Milwaukee Bucks. Against Colgate, Howard looked like the latter — a swiss-army knife who, despite a shaky jump shot, contributes with his ballhandling, passing, rebounding, and defense. The odds are that he won’t be as good as MCW, but SU doesn’t need him to be.
The Orange’s backcourt, despite losing the team’s top three scorers (Michael Gbinije, Malachi Richardson, Trevor Cooney) from last season, may have somehow gotten better. Gillon and Howard played “exceptionally well,” according to Boeheim, and the shooting guards, White and Tyus Battle, are expected carry the majority of the scoring load.
Syracuse did, however, struggle to execute certain aspects of the gameplan — namely, the press. The full-court defense carried SU to the Final Four last year; the turning point of the Elite Eight game against Virginia was when Boeheim told his guys to defend all 94 feet of the floor.
But on Saturday, Boeheim described the Orange’s press as “horrendous.” When asked why it wasn’t working, the coach was blunt.
“I guess they can’t do it,” he said, then paused for a few seconds, seemingly debating in his mind whether he should say anything more. “Why did Donald Trump become president? I don’t know.”
Boeheim’s clearly in midseason form, and judging by its performance against Colgate, his team is, too. Buckle your seatbelts — this group’s going to be fun.