Four nights ago, we talked about why, contrary to traditional opinion, each night of the college hoops season -- the intense days of January and February, yes, but also off-nights in November and December -- matters. Why? Because all of them must be survived.
On Monday night, Syracuse became the latest to join the party.
Come March, few outside of Onondaga County will remember just how close Syracuse came to falling to St. Francis (N.Y.) in Monday night's 56-50 win. The final score will tell some small portion of the story, sure, but it won't say that Syracuse trailed by a possession or more for much of the second half, or that it was down four with four minutes to play, or that it was tied with 65 seconds to play. All the score will say, when it comes down to it, is that the Orange survived a scare at home. It won't properly communicate the degree of fright.
For Syracuse fans, it had to be horrifying. Actually, I know it was horrifying, because I am not a Syracuse fan and I was horrified. The Orange shot 35.3 percent from the field at the Carrier Dome; they finished 2-of-6 from the line. Star senior C.J. Fair shot 2-of-13, Trevor Cooney 4-of-10, Tyler Ennis 1-of-4. The Orange shot 67 percent from the free throw line. Syracuse's offense often looked disjointed, out of whack, ugly in that special, imperceptible way that goes beyond poor shooting -- slower, somehow, more jagged. It was as if the game was played in sand.
Some of the credit should go to St. Francis. The Terriers, an unknown and unremarkable 12-18 team ranked outside the efficiency top 200 last season, have now taken the Orange to the wire and beaten (a rebuilding, but still) Miami team at Miami through the sheer strength of their defense. The Miami victory was a 66-62 win in 74 possessions; the Terriers' other victory, at Florida Atlantic, was 59-57 in 71. Even with a deeply ugly offense, Glenn Braica's team has gotten very good at making itself hard to beat defensively, and that trait gave Syracuse fits for almost all of 40 minutes Monday night.
"Almost" being the key word. The Orange finally pulled away -- in a 53-possession game, a two-possession lead qualifies as "pulling away" -- after Jerami Grant's steal with one minute left led to a Michael Gbinije run-out, followed by another steal and four free throws from Grant and Fair. The Terriers had a couple of shots to pull it back late, but never really came close. Scoring is not quite their strong suit.
Of course, it is far too early to panic, but there are also legitimate reasons to withhold judgment on the Orange for the time being. For one, they won in every aspect of the game Monday -- rebounding, turnovers, free throw rate -- save shooting. Sometimes, you just have a bad shooting night. If the Orange rebound and defend like they did Monday as a baseline, they're going to be really tough to beat. But as Michael Carter-Williams takes the NBA by storm and memories of now-departed senior Brandon Triche start to become fonder with age, Orange fans may worry whether the new backcourt, touted as it's been, has enough to lift Syracuse beyond any conservative baseline.
It certainly didn't Monday. The good news is that there's good news, and also that Syracuse won. The bad news is that it was a close call against St. Francis at home, and that there are far more daunting challenges to come.