Syracuse Basketball is in the midst of an unfamiliar stretch. After SU’s 73-72 loss to Bryant, the Orange could drop their third consecutive non-conference game for just the second time under the tutelage of Jim Boeheim. That’s quite the change from a perennial top ten team of a decade ago. But to avoid that disappointing feat, what needs to change in Champaign today?
Joe Girard Needs to be Joe Girard
After starting off the season averaging over 20 points per game on 45% shooting from downtown, the senior has spiraled. Girard’s last two games have read two for his last 22 from the field and an abysmal one of 12 from distance. Now add the factor that SU has lost its last two games by single digits and Girard should take plenty of the blame. Against Bryant he was forcing his shot. Eight of JG3’s 12 shots were from three-point range. That’s not necessarily a bad thing considering his role as the team’s shooting guard, but the Glens Falls native can’t shy away from helping out the team when his shot isn’t falling.
This is not a plea for Girard to average four assists per game like last season. It’s just bringing notice to the fact that on a one of 12 shooting night, the senior recorded just two assists. A shooting guard isn’t meant to only think selfishly. That’s been JG3 over the last couple games. Jim Boeheim can mutter on and on about every player having off days, but it doesn’t excuse the upperclassman’s lack of intensity when averaging the most minutes per game on this squad.
Bryant is quick and keyed in on Girard and it won’t be much different with Illinois. The Fighting Illini guards are even quicker and a couple range close to 6’6. Today’s contest is all about off-ball movement for SU’s starting shooting guard, and if Illinois keeps him calm, Girard needs to prioritize his role as a ball-handler and an offensive decoy. To the latter’s point, JG3 played that role in the second half against Bryant when the ‘Cuse were oh so close to amounting a comeback. The senior attempted just three shots in the final 20 minutes, which opened up space for Justin Taylor to drop 25 points and Chris Bell to find a rhythm.
Jesse Edwards Staying out of Foul Trouble
In the first three games of the season, albeit against Lehigh, Colgate and Northeastern, the senior tallied only one foul each game. That allowed the Orange to play around Edwards and structure their offense and defense with a consistent five on the floor down the stretch. But in the past three contests, the center has racked up 12 personal fouls, including five against Bryant, which forced SU’s key shot blocker and rebounder out of the game with three minutes remaining. That prompted a Bulldog attack toward the rim with a weaker Jon Bol Ajak in his place.
Last season, Edwards’ foul trouble doomed the ‘Cuse. The Netherlands native fouled out in eleven of 24 games played which played a large part in down to the wire losses. Everything seemed fixed in 2022 until teams started attacking Edwards in the zone. Now the 6’11 senior is in major trouble moving forward. Not only did Bryant force Edwards into three fouls in the first half, which forced Boeheim’s hand into playing Ajak a career high 27 minutes, but the Bulldogs’ tallest player was only 6’8. With Syracuse traveling to Illinois today, the IMG academy product is up against 6’10 Coleman Hawkins and 6’9, 270-pound Dain Dainja.
It’s also worth mentioning that the status of Mounir Hima is still up in the air. Without Hima, it’s even more integral Edwards stays on the floor. This is no knock on Ajak or Peter Carey, but Illinois’ experience dominates whatever IQ those two can bring to the floor.
Extra possessions are important for Syracuse too. In SU’s loss to Bryant, Edwards racked up a career high 21 rebounds, eight of which were on the offensive end. Illinois averages 85 points per game, which is top 25 in the nation, so any extra chances for the Orange is paramount to their success. But it won’t be an easy task with the Fighting Illini averaging nine more rebounds than their opponent so far this season.
Judah Mintz On the Floor
After the game against Bryant, Boeheim said Mintz is the team’s “best player” which should come as no surprise based on his stats. In fact, SU’s starting point guard leads all ACC freshman in points per game and field goal percentage. So in short, Mintz needs to keep his hands to himself.
It’s all a learning process for the highest ranked recruit in this year’s Syracuse class. But without him the Orange looked stuck in mud. To score seven points in just nine minutes shows that if Mintz was in the game, Syracuse would have beaten Bryant. Now it’s time to get back to scoring 16 points, as the freshman did in each of the first five games, and leading the offense against a press-heavy Illinois team.
The key for Mintz staying on the floor is on the defensive side too. Whether it’s Terrence Shannon Jr., Jayden Epps or Skyy Clark, Mintz can’t take a break at the top of the zone. Illinois loves to whip the ball around the perimeter which is perfect for the first-year to pounce and create easy transition buckets. If Syracuse’s “next Johnny Flynn” interrupts the offensive flow of the Illini and opens up the Orange’s offensive attack, that gives SU the best chance to win.
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Bryant kept Syracuse’s stars at bay but failed to do so with the ancillary weapons. Bell and Taylor combined for 39 points and essentially kept SU in the game. If the ‘Cuse carry anything over from Saturday’s loss it has to surround other options.
Illinois usually goes ten players deep and vies to wear out its opponent. Mintz and Girard can’t play 40 minutes against the Fighting Illini press, so the onus falls on Symir Torrence, Quadir Copeland, Benny Williams and others to distribute the ball and develop a groove offensively.