With a few minutes remaining in Syracuse’s manhandling of Cornell on Tuesday night, Tyler Roberson attempted to tip in a missed Orange jumper while surrounded by three opponents. The SU senior’s Herculean effort came up short, much to the chagrin of one man on the sidelines. Although his team led by 26 points and a win was almost assured, Jim Boeheim threw his hands up in disgust.
The head honcho’s consternation was likely due in part to his apparent disdain for Roberson — the forward could probably earn a benching for smiling at his coach too nicely — but perhaps more so in response to the cold truth about Syracuse’s 80-56 win over a team ranked 250th in the nation, per KenPom.com. Boeheim knows it, you know it, and I know it: victories like this mean nothing until the Orange proves something against a quality opponent.
It can’t be a “get-right game,” in which SU pummels an inferior opponent and builds confidence that will come in handy against better teams — we’ve seen that story too many times already. The contests against North Florida, Boston University, and Eastern Michigan were all supposed to serve the exact same purpose. Instead, Syracuse followed each of those victories with defeats to old, mediocre Big East rivals: UConn, Georgetown, and, most brutally, St. John’s.
Still, we can draw a few positive takeaways from the Orange’s 47th consecutive defeat of its Central New York foe. It starts in the frontcourt, where two young big men flashed the tantalizing upside that makes fans so frustrated when the team struggles.
Tyler Lydon dominated the end of the first half, and at the beginning of the second, Taurean Thompson picked up where his teammate left off. Lydon piled up 15 points and six rebounds in the opening half, helping to suffocate a surprising start from the pesky Big Red (Cornell led for the majority of the first 10 minutes). The forward finished with 20 points and 10 boards — his first career 20-10 outing; he had posted four games with at least 20 points and eight with double-digit rebounds, but none with both.
After a somewhat shaky start to his sophomore season, Lydon appears to have settled into a groove, and has been his team’s lone bright spot over its recent stretch of poor play. The New York native cracked double-figures in just three of SU’s first eight games, but has now scored at least 10 points in five consecutive contests. He’s 11-of-18 from beyond the arc over the last four tilts, and Syracuse needs Lydon to remain hot if it wants any chance at an NCAA Tournament bid.
Lydon could form one-half of a pair of versatile twin towers in the Orange’s frontcourt, because Thompson is exhibiting a multifaceted game that may eventually earn him a spot in the starting lineup. He’s the only guy on the roster with a realistic chance to develop a consistent back-to-the-basket game, but that’s not the only weapon in his well-rounded arsenal.
“[Thompson is our] best post player,” Boeheim said after Tuesday’s win. “Not even close. He’s gifted. Gifted offensive player.”
The 6-foot-10 Thompson has flashed a bevy of skills that typically belong only to players much smaller than he is. The freshman has knocked down a pair of 3-pointers this season, and is draining 45.5 percent of his jumpers from inside the arc, according to hoop-math.com. That feathery touch paired with advanced passing chops allow Thompson to serve as the fulcrum of an offense, with terrific vision and ability to facilitate from the high post (like Joakim Noah or Marc Gasol at the NBA level). He’s also more than capable of performing prototypical big man duties — he scored the Orange’s first three buckets of the second half, and each one was either a layup or dunk.
Lydon and Thompson have already demonstrated a budding chemistry, and Boeheim opted to start the second half with the latter at center instead of DaJuan Coleman.
“[Lydon] and Taurean are a pretty good combination there, because they both can pass, and they both can shoot,” Boeheim said.
Tyus Battle played well, too, with 16 points on 5-of-11 shooting (4-for-7 from distance) in 32 minutes, and appears to be fully recovered from the mysterious foot injury that was ailing him in recent weeks. If the two bigs and Battle all find a rhythm, SU will have something to build around; Andrew White III is a steady presence at either the top of the zone or wing, and one of Frank Howard and John Gillon typically plays well on a given night (though not always). A lineup of Howard/Gillon, Battle, White, Lydon, and Thompson carries devastating offensive potential, for the same reason that a four-guard lineup does. Don’t be surprised if that group starts the majority of games in ACC play.
Despite the encouraging signs, however, it’s important to take a step back and look at the big picture. Syracuse’s best win came against a team best known for its bench celebrations, and the Orange has picked up a few bad losses. No one has any clue whether SU will turn its season around — including the team’s coach.
“You don’t need to speculate, because you have results,” Boeheim said. “Our results are no good. We’re just gonna go back to work. Try to get better. As far as what’s going to happen, nobody knows.”