If you look up "impressive conference road win" in the imaginary multimedia dictionary I just made up in the confines of my own brain, you would be immediately greeted by an ESPN3.com replay of Georgetown's 64-56 win over Syracuse.
The Hoyas were never fully in control of the game. Syracuse had plenty of opportunities to take the upper hand, not to mention 27,000 orange-clad maniacs screaming their brains out at every turn. But the Hoyas poked and prodded, found ways into and behind Syracuse's 2-3 zone, stayed focused, got big buckets at key moments, avoided late turnovers when Syracuse had to turn up the pressure, and locked in defensively in the final moments when it mattered most.
No, Big East road wins don't get much more impressive than that. The fact that we just saw this Syracuse team go to Connecticut and get a win makes this win all the more noteworthy. And speaking of noteworthy, there's this: After a 1-4 start in the Big East, the Hoyas have now won seven in a row. That stretch includes a home win over Louisville, a win at Villanova, and now this big-time win in the Carrier Dome, a place they hadn’t won in nearly a decade. Pittsburgh is still the best team in this conference. But at this point, if any team can challenge the Panthers, that team appears to be the Georgetown Hoyas.
Some assorted bullet-point thoughts about the game:
When you play a 2-3 zone like Syracuse, and your opponent is one of the most efficient teams in the country both beyond the arc and inside it, you have to have length. The Orange do. They had 11 blocks in this game, a product of some tremendous zone extension and interior presence by Jim Boeheim's team. Rick Jackson had three of those, but the majority of the rejections came from freshmen C.J. Fair, Baye Moussa Keita and Dion Waiters, who combined for eight blocks on the night. Keita, who had five, was especially impressive. This is why Syracuse's zone has been, and can be, so very tough this season. The Orange are just long.
That said, there are still plenty of flaws in this zone. Georgetown's guards presented serious matchup problems for Syracuse, especially when Chris Wright worked his way into the middle of the zone and got inside-out looks for Austin Freeman and Jason Clark. Georgetown was also able to get big buckets on baseline action, especially on backcuts late in the game when Syracuse defenders lost their baseline assignments and no one in the middle of the zone was able to help in time. Georgetown's backcuts, which you frequently see in the Princeton offense against man-to-man defense, worked just as well against the zone. And with all those guards on the floor, the Hoyas were able to pass effectively through the zone, much more effectively than anyone might have expected. It takes a lot of guts to try and match up with the Orange with four guards, but it paid dividends for Georgetown on the offensive end.
And yes, even with all that length, Georgetown still got plenty of good looks from 3. The Hoyas were shooting 38.5 percent from long range coming into tonight's game; they made 42.9 percent (9-of-21) Wednesday night.
Still, despite Georgetown's effective ball movement and shooting, it's not like the Hoyas lit it up. No, the Orange’s loss came on the offensive end. Syracuse has struggled on the perimeter throughout the season, and those struggles (4-of-16 from 3) were evident again Wednesday night. In recent seasons, Syracuse has always had at least one (and often multiple) knockdown shooters. Gerry McNamara. Eric Devendorf. Andy Rautins. Wes Johnson. This team doesn't have one. It struggles at the guard position in a variety of ways -- perhaps no player frustrates Syracuse fans more than Scoop Jardine -- but the biggest problem area remains perimeter shooting. Until someone proves capable of knocking down shots, it would probably be wise to cut down on the 3s going forward.
It might also be wise to get Fair a greater share of the offensive load. Fair scored 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field and grabbed five rebounds in the process. He was opportunistic and intuitive; he read rebounding angles correctly, found space against Georgetown's interior, and finished his chances when he got them. For as much as Boeheim's freshmen have struggled at times this season, this was a good game for all but Fab Melo.
And, not to pile on, but Melo is still a massive disappointment. The highly touted center prospect started but played a mere three minutes. He was 0-for-1 in that span. Melo's simply not there athletically right now. Maybe next year?
Speaking of four guards, one of those "guards" was frequently forward Hollis Thompson, who has the size to be a forward but the range to stretch defenses out to the 3-point line. John Thompson III got the perfect type of contribution from Thompson on Wednesday night. The forward had a very efficient 11 points -- 4-of-5 from the field, 3-of-3 from long distance -- and added five rebounds, two assists, two steals and zero turnovers. I'm not sure an off-the-bench role player could have a better, more important game than that. He was huge.
Same goes for Julian Vaughn, who went 5-of-8 for 12 points and eight rebounds. Austin Freeman didn't have a great shooting night. Nor did Chris Wright or Jason Clark. That made it all the more crucial for Georgetown's role players to come up with efficient supporting efforts, and Vaughn and Thompson did so.
If ever there was a time you thought Georgetown was going to take control of this game, it came when Jackson picked up his fourth foul with 14:40 left in the game. That didn't really happen. Instead, Boeheim got big contributions from the three aforementioned freshmen. Keita grabbed offensive rebounds in bunches, Fair got a pair of buckets and Waiters came up with two steals to keep Syracuse from falling too far behind while Jackson waited on the sidelines. Even in the loss, it was good to see those players step up at a crucial time in the game. But Georgetown did pull away eventually, and the Hoyas get credit for doing what so many teams struggle to do in the Big East: win big games on the road. Tremendous win for Georgetown.