SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Syracuse continues to flip a switch, find a catalyst and ultimately win.
The recipe worked in the NIT Season Tip-Off last week when the Orange beat back Virginia Tech and rallied against Stanford at Madison Square Garden.
And it was used again Friday night in a top-10 matchup against ninth-ranked Florida at the Carrier Dome in the featured game of the Big East/SEC Challenge.
The No. 3 Orange, now 8-0 for the fourth consecutive season, have the talent to win the Big East and compete for a Final Four berth in New Orleans. And so far, Syracuse has shown no reason why it can’t stay on that path.
Dion Waiters and C.J. Fair were needed late in New York, and they came through. Scoop Jardine was called up Friday night, and he answered, contributing 16 points, seven assists, four steals and four rebounds in his team's 72-68 victory over the Gators.
It was his 3-pointer with 3:53 to go that turned a five-point lead into eight. And it was his two made free throws with 16 seconds left that sealed the game. He also became a 1,000-point career scorer during the victory.
“If he didn’t get it, then we wouldn’t be talking about winning,’’ Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “He literally won the game. He made a couple of drives that were really hard that came off a screen.’’
The Orange length, exemplified by Fair and Fab Melo, will be a problem for teams throughout the season. The tandem helped get Florida’s Patric Young in foul trouble in the first half, and the Gators simply couldn’t get into the Syracuse zone and had to settle for jump shots and 3-pointers. That option didn’t work well in the first half as the Gators, who came in leading the country in 3-point shooting, went 3-of-14 from beyond the arc.
The long-range accuracy picked up in the second half thanks to Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, but heralded freshman Brad Beal and Mike Rosario were off all night, combining for an 0-for-7 performance from 3.
Florida coach Billy Donovan said Beal’s 10 boards showed he could contribute in another fashion, but Rosario, who played only six minutes, wasn’t right emotionally and his defense was not up to Donovan’s standard. Donovan said earlier Friday that Rosario has had some issues dealing with the transition from being a star and go-to player at Rutgers to being a UF role player coming off the bench. Rosario has to work on his defense to ensure his playing time, Donovan said.
Clearly, the Gators need him to figure it out and for Beal to be an offensive option if they’re going to hang with a team such as Syracuse. It also wouldn't hurt to get forward Erik Murphy back. He's out with a knee injury, but it turned out to be a bone bruise rather than a torn meniscus that would have required surgery. That’s great news for the Gators, and Donovan said after the game that he’s hopeful Murphy can play Wednesday against Arizona.
The Gators, whose two losses have come on the road against top-5 teams (Ohio State was the other), are still trying to get healthy and discover an identity before the SEC begins and the chase of Kentucky commences.
The issues the Gators must fix -- rebounding, frontcourt scoring and depth off the bench -- aren’t a problem for Syracuse. The Orange have gotten inspired play from a refined and rebuilt Melo, and a more active Fair. The rotating contributions from Jardine, Waiters, Brandon Triche (who led SU with 20 points) and Kris Joseph (with a usually solid 14) make the Syracuse perimeter one of the deepest in the country.
Boeheim said he essentially has seven starters with Fair and Waiters coming off the bench. He didn’t use Rakeem Christmas or James Southerland much Friday night (a combined 13 minutes), but he does have them both as options.
The schedule is still decent with Conference USA contender Marshall coming in next. Boeheim said the Thundering Herd might be one of the most talented teams the Orange have faced to date. Going to improved NC State won’t be a walk on Dec. 17, either.
But this SU team shouldn’t fret. The length of the players, the ability to fluster teams with its zone, the effectiveness of its fast break and the experience shown when this team gets pushed late in the game are all positive signs for Syracuse in the early going.
Boeheim said the Orange easily could have lost two of the past four games. And that's true.
But they didn't.
As we get further into the season, fewer and fewer teams are going to be able to say that.