The defining stretch of Saturday’s game between Syracuse and South Carolina came in the first few minutes. Roughly 90 seconds in, after the Gamecocks opened the matinee matchup with back-to-back three-pointers, SU head coach Jim Boeheim yanked his starting point guard, Franklin Howard, and replaced him with John Gillon. Then, exactly one minute later, Boeheim reversed the move, summoning Gillon (who had turned the ball over twice during his brief stint) to the sideline for a long lecture, and re-inserting Howard.
As Boeheim desperately searched for both a spark and a steady hand in Barclays Center, the cold reality became more and more apparent: South Carolina was simply better on this day. The Orange was like a dog chasing its own tail as it attempted to mount a comeback against USC — sometimes getting close, but never close enough.
The Gamecocks didn’t relinquish lead on their way to a 64-50 win over the previously perfect Orange. In SU’s first real test of the young campaign, it came out flat; like a team that perhaps thought it was good enough to coast past USC. Jim Boeheim’s group didn’t appear to mail the game in, by any means — but it was sloppy throughout, and never shifted into a gear that’s necessary to good Power Five opponents.
And make no mistakes about it: South Carolina is, without a doubt, a good Power Five opponent. The Gamecocks are now 6-0, with consecutive wins over ranked opponents (this one followed a 61-46 victory over No. 25 Michigan) and, most likely, reservations for their own spot inside the top 25 when new polls are released on Tuesday. USC jumped 12 spots, from 46 to 34, in KenPom.com’s national rankings after Saturday’s victory, and even that may be too conservative.
Boeheim opened his postgame press conference by praising the opponent.
“I thought South Carolina played great defense — the best defense that we’ve seen, obviously this year, but as good a defense as we’ve seen in a long time.” The head honcho later called the Gamecocks a “top 20 team.”
South Carolina’s defense was stingy from the jump, holding the Orange scoreless for nearly three minutes to begin the contest (Syracuse fans comprised roughly 90 percent of the crowd at the “neutral-site” game, and they all remained standing until SU got on the board). The Gamecocks are one of the nation’s least generous units; all six of their opponents have shot below 40 percent from the field.
South Carolina completely clamped down on the interior, allowing the Orange to score just eight — yes, eight — points in the paint. SU actually shot a higher percentage from downtown (6-for-15, 40 percent) than inside the arc (8-for-29, 27.5 percent). Syracuse is usually the team that builds a wall around the lane, but on Saturday, it was USC.
Syracuse turned the ball over a season-high 17 times on Saturday, after averaging just 11.5 across its first four games. Howard picked up his third foul with more than six minutes left in the first half, forcing Boeheim to roll with Gillon, who struggled against the first team that hounded him on the perimeter. The graduate transfer finished with three assists and five turnovers (his assist-to-turnover ratio was 20-to-4 in SU’s four wins), and attempted just one field goal. He made it, but that was pretty much the only thing that went right for Gillon against the Gamecocks.
“They would deny the wings, and then you would have a driving lane,” Gillon said. “But they would still have someone — we didn’t do a good job of spacing. So, even if we drove to the basket, there wasn’t an open lane for us, really, at all times. It was kind of confusing to learn that on the fly, but we just have to do a better job all-around.”
While he credited USC’s defense, Gillon placed most of the blame on Syracuse, saying “we need to look in the mirror, and we have to get better.”
One area where SU certainly must improve is the free throw line. The Orange knocked down just 16-of-26 (61.5 percent) attempts from the charity stripe, continuing a disturbing trend — Syracuse is hitting less than 64 percent of its freebies this season, good for 293rd in the nation. It’s an issue that has plagued SU in the past, and it doesn’t appear that the Orange will figure it out anytime soon.
With so much offensive stagnation, one could have expected Syracuse to search for easy buckets in transition, but SU couldn’t get going in that respect, either — Boeheim’s team scored just two fastbreak points. Syracuse should, in theory, run up and down the floor as well as any team in the country, but its transition prowess was negated by careless possession of the ball, the inability to grab a defensive rebound (the Orange grabbed just 30 boards in the game), and South Carolina’s commitment to hustling back and beating SU to the other end.
“We weren’t good at that today,” senior forward Tyler Roberson said regarding the fastbreak. “We weren’t good at a lot of things — we’re a lot better than we played today. I’m not worried about it. It’s early in the season. We just take it and learn from this game, and get ready for Tuesday.”
That’s when Syracuse travels to the midwest for a marquee matchup with No. 16 Wisconsin. There’s a case to be made that Saturday’s tilt was a “trap game,” with the Orange looking ahead to the nationally-televised showdown with the Badgers.
Despite all the struggles on Saturday — interior scoring, turnovers, transition, free throws, rebounding — SU hung around throughout the entire game, and was within striking distance until the final couple minutes. But every time it felt like Syracuse was ready to make a run, South Carolina punched back.
“We were coming off four straight wins early on in the season I think we got a bit ahead of ourselves,” Roberson said. “I guess this was just a good test and a wake-up call. We’ve got to come out and be ready for the next game.”