Story written by J.D. Raucci
Just 2 minutes and 32 seconds into Tuesday night’s pivotal bubble vs bubble matchup with NC State, Syracuse fans’ worst nightmares were realized.
Hughes would never re-enter the game and his status for Saturday’s monumentally important matchup against Florida State is still very much up in the air. That’s incredibly scary for a team that, at the beginning and end of his time on bench, looked completely lost without him.
The loss puts the Orange on near bubble-bursting status as the last month or so of the season rolls around. But, in a game overshadowed by the Hughes injury, there were some moments of hope (and some moments of hopelessness) scattered throughout. Let’s take a look at some of the standouts.
With Hughes out and a tough opponent staring Syracuse in the face, someone was going to have to step up if SU wanted any chance of pulling out a win without its best player. Based on what we’ve seen most of the season from the Elijah Hughes-Buddy Boeheim duo, you’d figure the coach’s son would be that guy when his team needed him most. On this night… not so much (more on that in a bit). Instead, it was two of the youngest players on the team putting in the most impressive performances of their career.
Both Joe Girard (30) and Quincy Guerrier (16) posted career-high scoring outputs on a night where any offense out of them seemed like non-existent. After a few bad shot choices early (which has been an issue for him over the past few game), JG3 locked in and was extremely aggressive of the dribble, getting to the rim and drawing contact (11-12 from the free-throw line). From inside the three-point arc he was an efficient 8-12 and looked like a guy that could lead the team for years to come. Like the rest of the team, he was abysmal from beyond the arc (1-10) and that’s just straight up got to be better (he admitted to this after the game) but could you imagine what he could have done if he was hitting anything from out there? He looked the part of a future star on Tuesday night and was the only reason SU kept it close in the first half.
As for Guerrier’s efforts, the Canadian freshman put on a show. He ate on the glass, pulling down a career-high 10 boards (including three offensive) against some behemoths in NC State’s D.J. Funderburk and Manny Bates. He was an efficient 6-12 from the floor and looked to attack from all angles. Jim Boeheim said that Guerrier ran out of gas in the last 10 minutes but after playing a career-high 37 minutes (and only fouling once!) can you really blame him. He’s got more work to do, but if he can build on these dominant stretches and turn them into dominant all-around performances, the ACC better watch out.
Gutsy on the Glass
For a team that was at one point ranked next-to-last in the ACC in rebounding margin, the effort that SU put in on the glass Tuesday night is a massive improvement. The Orange won the battle on the boards by a 37-32 margin but the most impressive part was the work SU did on the offensive glass. The ‘Cuse reeled in 14 offensive rebounds on the night compared to NC State’s four. A trio of freshmen (Guerrier, Jesse Edwards, Brycen Goodine) combined for half of those second-chance opportunities. Again, NC State boasts two really good post players in Funderburk and Bates so for a team that has been downright bad on the boards at times this season to win the battle and snag that many offensive rebounds is huge going forward. Now the trick is to turn those second-chance opportunities into second-chance points after notching just 11 on Tuesday.
Remember when we said that Buddy was going to have to step up for SU to win this game? Yeah, that didn’t happen. Unfortunately for SU, Buddy mustered his lowest scoring total (10) since the Virginia Tech loss while shooting just 4-15 (27%) from the floor and 2-8 from beyond the line. The first half especially was awful for Buddy. After nailing the first triple of the ball game, he finished the half 0 for his next 8 from the floor and 0 for his next 5 from three. That’s not going to cut it without Hughes on the floor. He resurrected himself a bit in the second-half with a quick burst to keep SU in it, but overall it was just a really bad night for Buddy. He seemed handcuffed and hesitant at times, albeit against one of the best perimeter defenders in the league in State’s Devon Daniels. That’s not to mention that he turned the ball over five times, including a crucial giveaway with less than a minute to play after an offensive rebound. Elite defender aside, he’s become a leader on this team and now he’s got to play like it game in and game out, especially if Hughes’ injury is anything even close to long-term.
Bunnies and Beyond the Arc
It seems like a long-forgotten memory when SU’s biggest weapon was shooting the three-ball. There were games where it seemed like that was the only way the Orange were going to get anything done. Those seem like the good ole days now because SU has been downright dreadful from beyond the arc over the last few weeks. In Syracuse’s last four game (losses to Duke, Clemson, NC State and win over Wake Forest), the Orange are shooting just 24-92 (26%) from deep. Needless to say, that is not good and Tuesday night’s 3-18 (17%) performance (SU’s worst of the season) is not a good indicator of things to come.
Add that to the fact that it felt like SU missed about a million layups in this game (unfortunately there’s no stat to back this up, but it really didn’t feel good) and you’ve got an offensive recipe for disaster on your hands. Something’s got to give on both those fronts but especially from beyond the arc because that seems like more of a prolonged issue than a one-time thing.
This isn’t a one-game problem, SU has had problems with clutch finishes all year, but NC State is a perfect example. With 6:16 remaining in the game, the Orange held a 68-62 lead. Not the most comfortable advantage in the world but still more than something to build off in the closing moments. That lead quickly vanished thanks to a 15-2 Wolfpack run over the next four minutes that put the game away for NC State. Syracuse simply didn’t have an answer down the stretch on either end of the floor, chucking up misfired three-balls on one end and giving up wide-open perimeter jumpers on the other. It was the perfect meltdown of turnovers and defensive miscues, missed shots and untimely fouls. Everything seemed to go wrong in the final minutes without Hughes on the floor and with Boeheim off his game but it goes beyond that with this team. Those kind of late-game outbursts from opponents are becoming far too common and either put games away when SU trails or completely flips the momentum when it has the lead. They’re devastating and have now made the rest of the season outside of Florida State and Louisville nearly must-win.
The Worst Case Scenario
The only thing we know about Elijah Hughes’ current injury status is that he sustained some sort of lower-body injury during warmups and, after giving it a go at the outset of the game, didn’t come back for the remainder of the contest. Nobody knows how severe the injury is or even what body part is ailing the Orange’s leader (groin and thigh are the most common guesses based on where his ice wrap was placed on his leg). What everybody does know, however, is if the injury is anything that will force Hughes to miss any sort of significant time, the Orange are in dire straits. The offense seemed lost, confused and discombobulated without him on the floor in the beginning of his absence and in the end-of-game situation. Hughes is everything for this team. Like his coach said after the game he’s a top three or four player in the conference and with as good as he’s been this year, losing him might officially burst SU’s bubble. Let’s hope for him and the rest of the team that that isn’t the case.