Each game has built on the previous one. It’s like a step ladder, and Judah Mintz continues to take one, sometimes two steps up each game. Syracuse is now 16-10 overall and 9-6 in the ACC thanks in large part to Mintz’s play. He was key in the Orange’s 75-72 win over No. 23 NC State on Tuesday night, contributing 20 points and nine assists. He hit a game-tying three-pointer with under three minutes to go. He hit two free throws with under 30 seconds to go to put SU up three. Wolfpack head coach Kevin Keats said it after the game. He’s not a freshman anymore.
The biggest revelation is how he’s able to turn his game up in the second half. In each of the Orange’s last two victories (and a three-game streak overall), he’s started slowly scoring the ball but went to work after the break, putting up big numbers thanks to getting more aggressive and taking the ball to the basket. His ability to finish through contact is unmatched on the team, and maybe in the conference. He’s becoming a complete basketball player.
Yes, there are still things to work on. The outside shooting is a work in progress, but he’s comfortable from the mid-range, and starting to hit more threes by the week (including that critical one against NC State). He’s turning the ball over less (just one on Tuesday) and distributing more (at least five assists in every game of the winning streak). He might not be ready for the NBA, but there’s no doubt he’ll be an All-ACC Freshman team selection. Outside of Duke’s Kyle Filipowski, there’s not another freshman in the conference having a better season and making a bigger impact on his team.
The Orange are still way on the outside looking in of the NCAA Tournament bubble. SU is 88th on kenpom.com, 107th on barttorvik.com, and 95th in the NET rankings. Syracuse has 0 quad one win, is just 2-3 in quad two, and has multiple quad three losses. That’s not a tournament team. But, and it’s a big but, if SU can win out, and maybe even go just 4-1 in these last five games, the Orange could put themselves in position in Greensboro at the ACC Tournament to maybe sneak onto the bubble. It’s far-fetched, but the play of Mintz lately has us optimistic and thinking about what could be if this team had just closed out some games earlier in the season.
Duke is a winnable game. The Blue Devils’ only road wins this season are Georgia Tech and Boston College, not exactly the most impressive victories. Yes, the talent advantage is large between who Duke will put on the floor and who Syracuse will put on the floor. But, anything can happen in the Dome.
Then, road trips to Clemson and Pittsburgh. The Tigers have cooled off since their hot start, and that’s another winnable game for the Orange even though it’s on the road and Clemson has been a good team all year, but it’s a place SU has won before. Then, Pitt, the only quad one opportunity left on Syracuse’s schedule, and a must-win. The Orange blew a December game to the Panthers in the Dome, were down big, and made a roaring come back, but couldn’t finish. They’ll need to this time.
Then the final two games, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest. The former should be a walk in the park against one of the worst teams in the conference who SU already beat by 17 in Atlanta. The latter is tied in the ACC standings with Syracuse and that game is a true toss-up. But, the Orange play well at home, it’s the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the 2003 team, and Gerry McNamara and Hakim Warrick’s numbers are getting retired. No way that’s a loss, emotionally it can’t be.
So, Syracuse has a chance, if ever so small. The opportunity to continue this win streak is there for the taking, it’s just about if Mintz can continue to improve each game, and how high a level he can take his play to.