In late November, Boeheim called this team, "the most overrated team I've ever coached." At the time, I completely agreed with him. I had watched the games. I had seen their shooting troubles, defensive lapses, and very close games against subpar competition (a 63-60 win over William & Mary??). Now though? Now you have to really nitpick to find flaws. They are improving by leaps and bounds and after a 93-65 beating of a good Drexel team, I'm finally ready to no longer call this team overrated.
At the outset, this game looked like it could be close. Drexel was completely controlling the tempo. The Dragons were hoping to keep this game low-scoring and control the tempo and it was working for about the first 12 minutes. Drexel didn't allow a fast break bucket until 6:57 remaining in the half when Scoop stole the ball and finished with an easy layup. Before that bucket, Syracuse led by just four, 16-12. They hustled back and played great defense in the half court set. Syracuse didn't move the ball well and wound up with some poor shots late in the shot clock. Drexel was getting some decent looks from deep but missed five open three-pointers in the first half.
But after that steal and score from Scoop, the Orange were a completely different team. They went on a 15-4 run largely by getting the ball inside. They got it inside with dribble penetration as well as some post-ups by Rick Jackson. But this first half spurt was nothing compared to their absolute domination in the second half.
Syracuse couldn't have played a much more perfect half than the last 20 minutes last night. While Drexel had been able to largely stop the fast break opportunities in the first half, they could do no such thing in the second. On top of the transition baskets, the Orange got easy shots by being unselfish. The ball movement and player movement off the ball was phenomenal. They made Drexel pay when they double-teamed. That helps explain SU hitting on 18 of their first 20 shots. They shot 72% in the half, making 23 of 32 attempts.
And an offense can't be that good unless the defense is doing things well. These players are beginning to understand their role in the 2-3 zone and are getting quite comfortable. Drexel didn't get many open looks at the hoop and Syracuse limited second chance points. Drexel is one of the best rebounding teams in the country and had been out-rebounding their opponents by over 14 boards a game. Last night, Syracuse out-rebounded them 35 to 24.
Recently, this team has shown no signs the normal weak spots Syracuse teams struggle with. Bad free throw shooting? They made 18 of 24 last night. Poor three-point shooting? Knocked down 5 of 12. Careless with the ball? Just nine turnovers in a game where they scored 93 points.
"Earlier in the year we were getting one or 2 guys, maybe, playing good," Boeheim said after the game. "Everybody was good on offense tonight. It was just as well as we could play." The three who were especially good were Rick Jackson, Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph. Jackson had another double-double with 15 and 12, Scoop hit 9 of 10 shots and scored 21 points, and Joseph set a career-high with 25 points on 9 of 12 shooting. The three combined to shoot 74% and nearly outscored the entire Drexel team (61-65).
The offense has been tremendous recently and that's because there are no weak links. Sure, there will be nights that certain players aren't hitting their shots, but everyone can handle the ball. There's not one player that causes the crowd to cringe when they have the ball. Scoop has the occasional stupid decision but there's no denying he's an amazing ball handler. They can all dribble and they can all pass and I don't know if there has ever been a Syracuse team without one player that causes the crowd to get nervous when they have the ball.
This young squad is just beginning to play up to their potential and that makes for perfect timing with Big East play beginning on Tuesday against Providence.