Maybe they found some of Michael’s Secret Stuff. Perhaps they stumbled upon a few pairs of the sneakers from Like Mike. For all we know, each player may have been replaced by a Terminator.
Or maybe the Syracuse men’s basketball team just started to click, thanks to a confluence of factors — lineup tweaks by head coach Jim Boeheim, a new gear from a few different guys, fresh chemistry among a group that welcomed several new faces this season — that have allowed the Orange to engineer a complete one-eighty and revive its season.
SU sprinted past Pittsburgh, 77-66, on Saturday, for its second consecutive impressive ACC victory after one of the worst nonconference performances in program history and a brutal loss to Boston College. Syracuse (10-6, 2-1 ACC) snapped a five-game losing streak against the Panthers (12-4, 1-2 ACC), who had consistently confounded Boeheim’s 2-3 zone under old head coach Jamie Dixon (wish you were still here, Jamie!).
But this time, that zone was a monster — the Orange chewed up and spit out a Pittsburgh offense that KenPom.com rates as the 20th-best in the nation. The Panthers shot just 20-57 (35.1%) from the field, a few days after Miami connected on just 21-of-54 (38.9%) of its field goal attempts and scored a measly 55 points. Pittsburgh seniors Michael Young (22.7 points per game) and Jamel Artis (21.4) entered the game as the top two scorers in the ACC, and they combined for a respectable 40 points — but only three other Panthers scored.
This is the same SU squad (we think) that allowed St. John’s and Boston College, two teams generously described as “mediocre,” to drill a combined 55.1 percent of their field goal attempts and pour in 93 and 96 points, respectively.
“The difference in the game was our defense,” Boeheim said Saturday. “The first half was probably the best defense we played [since] I can’t remember when. We were covering, staying in front of people — didn’t give them, really, any easy looks.”
The zone reached peak ferocity in the middle of the first half, when Syracuse went on an absurd 22-0 run across an 8:38 span. Pittsburgh didn’t hit a field goal for a stretch of more than 11 minutes, allowing the Orange to pile up a 36-8 lead late in the half and take a 42-21 edge into the locker room.
The most obvious reason behind SU’s sudden turnaround is Boeheim’s discovery of a reliable lineup. Now that he’s found it, the legend is leaning on it heavily; Syracuse’s backcourt remained the same throughout the game, as John Gillon, Andrew White III, and Tyus Battle each played the entire contest — and Tyler Lydon may have joined the 40-minute club if he hadn’t found himself in foul trouble late in both halves. Taurean Thompson started for the third time in as many ACC games, but saw only 10 minutes and was replaced by Tyler Roberson to start the second half. The rotation was almost exactly the same when Syracuse cruised past the Hurricanes.
Boeheim’s preferred grouping appears to be Gillon-Battle-White-Roberson-Lydon, a unit that owns a nice blend of speed, shooting, ball-handling, passing, and rebounding. Sure, it doesn’t carry the offensive potential of a four-guard unit, and it doesn’t boast a prototypical center — but Lydon’s ability to anchor the zone and protect the rim makes him the team’s best five, as Boeheim publicly concluded earlier in the season.
“Those five guys are playing well together,” said the head honcho. “And it’s hard to go away from it.”
So hard, in fact, that Boeheim might roll with the lineup for three-fourths of every ACC game, with Thompson spelling Lydon and Roberson for roughly five minutes apiece. It’s worrisome that three guys could regularly play the full 40 (and prompts flashbacks to last year’s triumvirate of Michael Gbinije, Trevor Cooney, and Malachi Richardson), but they’ve been the engine behind the campaign’s recent reversal, so Boeheim doesn’t really have a choice.
Syracuse has now officially passed the halfway point of the regular season, and when you look at the schedule, this team is incomprehensible; you can’t count on your hand the number of times the Orange has vacillated between terrific and horrific. But maybe those commanding victories over inferior opponents (like Monmouth, Eastern Michigan, and Boston University) were more than just flashes in the pan; maybe they foreshadowed a team with enough talent to manhandle ACC foes. Boeheim appears to have unearthed a winning formula, and, as he took more than seven minutes to explain his wildly-entertaining postgame press conference, your regular-season record is inconsequential — as long as you do enough to punch a ticket to March Madness.
“Last year, we lost 14 games… one of the five best years we’ve ever had since I’ve been coaching here. Because all that matters — and you know this — is what you do in the NCAA Tournament.
“This year, there’s still a long way to go, and nobody knows what’s going to happen. I certainly don’t. We’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do. I’m sure not too many people picked us to win today. I seriously doubt it.
“This year certainly could be a bad year, but it isn’t over yet.”