At the Carrier Dome, this year’s iteration of Syracuse men’s basketball can beat anyone. The Orange has proven that time and again, most recently with a miraculous win over one of the nation’s scariest squads. But for as dangerous as Jim Boeheim’s team has been inside the friendly confines of the Loud House, it has been, just as reliably, roadkill away from Central New York.
The pattern continued Sunday at Louisville, where the Cardinals coasted to an 88-68 demolition less than two weeks after SU took them to overtime in the Dome. Even with that loss, Syracuse is 15-3 at home; today’s defeat dropped the Orange to 2-8 on the road. That dichotomy, coupled with Louisville’s status as a national title contender, made it unreasonable to expect an SU win at KFC Yum! Center.
But it would have been nice to see Syracuse put up an ounce of a fight in its second-to-last game of the season. Aside from a short-lived SU spurt early in the first half, the Cardinals may as well have been playing in an empty gym. After Louisville raced out to an 11-2 edge just three minutes in, some hot shooting from Tyus Battle ignited a 15-2 response that chewed up 6:41 of game time. The resulting lead lasted all of one minute and 12 seconds, and Rick Pitino’s group stepped on the gas after the brief wake-up call. Syracuse fired a rock from its slingshot and hit Goliath in the forehead, but the contact didn’t knock the Cardinals over; instead, it woke them up.
“I thought Louisville played great tonight,” Boeheim said after the game. “They were just too good for us.”
With 97 percent of the regular season in the rearview mirror, consistency still eludes this SU team. Sunday may have provided the most striking example: Andrew White III and John Gillon, a pair of grad transfers who have spent most of the campaign passing the title of “best player on the team” back and forth, each went scoreless in the first half. Gillon’s first bucket came nearly four minutes into the second frame; White didn’t score until nine minutes were left in regulation. In the wake of Gillon’s buzzer-beater to topple Duke, Boeheim called him the team’s best player; White has been the roster’s beacon of consistency all year long. When those two guys don’t show up, any Syracuse game could feature blowout potential.
Battle led the Orange with 20 points, but wasn’t the only player who fired shots you’d expect him to drill. “Andrew had some good looks,” Battle said. “John had some good looks. But we just weren’t making them today. That’s the game of basketball — it happens.”
White’s issues could run deeper than that, though. Pitino may have unveiled a blueprint to silence SU’s best shooter.
“We play him as if he has no dribble,” Pitino said when asked about White in his postgame press conference. “We get up, we sit on his right hand. And that’s probably what a lot of teams are doing to him right now.”
That wasn’t the only bit of strategy the Cardinals’ head honcho revealed after the game.
“What we wanted to do tonight was press them — not to steal, just press to fatigue. Because we realized some of their guys are gonna play a lot of minutes. So that’s all we were trying to do. A lot of times, if you can just get them to speed-dribble, it takes a lot out of you.”
Pitino appears to have solved Syracuse. That’s fine — the Orange likely won’t see Louisville again. But when teams in your league (North Carolina is a nightmare matchup for SU) feel unbeatable, it’s extremely difficult to dream about a conference championship.
Syracuse almost definitely will not win the ACC Tournament, meaning the Orange will pick up its 14th loss before Selection Sunday. Only 11 teams with that many defeats have earned a ticket to the Big Dance since the field ballooned to 64 teams in 1985. None have qualified with 15 losses. If the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech in the Carrier Dome didn’t feel paramount already, it certainly does now.