To be sure, Syracuse men’s basketball hasn’t gotten off to a flawless start in 2022-23. The team’s perimeter defense is a huge question mark, its rebounding may be worse than last year, and the group still needs to find consistency from more than one outside shooter at a time.
Last night, SU showed us how it can still win despite some old blemishes – and did so in a raucous environment against a good team.
The ‘Cuse’s 74-71 overtime takedown of Richmond – who earned a 12 seed last March in the NCAA tournament and clipped Big 10 champion Iowa – showcased an Orange team that crossed into new ground closer to its ceiling. The ‘Cuse didn’t play its best game of the year, but it was easily the best version of SU we’ve seen so far this year. Syracuse started hot, finished strong, and looked ready to go from the rip. Forget messing around with man-to-man defense; SU looked like it had its ideas and identity figured out, and stuck with what was working.
What’s more impressive about Syracuse is that it prevailed even when things went wrong off the jump. SU again badly lost the rebound battle (44 to 27), saw center Jesse Edwards rack up two fouls in the game’s first six minutes, and got meager production from inconsistent forward Benny Williams. However, the experience of Edwards and fellow senior Joe Girard helped the Orange power through. Most summaries of the game may begin and end with Girard, who saw just about everything fall on a 12-of-24, career-high 31-point evening. Edwards helped the cause with five (!) second-half blocks after escaping from his foul-trouble prison cell and anchored a defense that forced a sloppy Richmond squad into 18 turnovers.
“We were able to survive in the first half, but when he [Edwards] came back you could feel the excitement…he’s a key player for us.’’ (Guard Judah Mintz to Syracuse.com, 11/21/22)
Girard and Edwards’ ability to lead as seniors is established, but SU finally got more from one of its freshmen. Forward Chris Bell had labored through part-time roles in the team’s first three games and received some postgame criticism from Jim Boeheim, but the California native finally broke out in Brooklyn. Bell blew past his previous career high in minutes by 18, finished 4-of-8 from the floor for 11 points – including a 3-of-5 mark from deep – and drew high marks from his head coach.
“We know he [Bell] can shoot…he got looks. He hasn’t gotten looks. He got looks today and he can shoot. I’m surprised when he misses.” (Jim Boeheim to Syracuse.com, 11/21/22)
The array of positive performances against Richmond gives SU a winning blueprint. The Orange got solid outside shooting from Girard and Bell, another double-digit point day from Judah Mintz, and saw Edwards lead a defense that forced the Spiders into four second-half shot clock violations. Against most teams, that’ll play. If Syracuse can follow its formula of leaning on experience to lead and its youth to thrive on the fly, it could take this year’s squad to places that looked unattainable even a week ago.