I confess, going into Tuesday night’s game against the mighty Spartans of Michigan State, preseason Final Four shoo-in, and laden with senior leadership, I was NERVOUS about my Orange. Barely scraping by sub-par oppenents such as Georgia Tech, albeit with an unblemished record, Syracuse had not played anywhere near the makings of a top ten squad with Final Four aspirations. Yet, by 11:30 P.M., I had on an ear-to-ear smile, feeling for the first time all season that we do indeed have a great team again.
Syracuse absolutely dominated Michigan State. The final score showed a 16 point margin of victory, but if they had gotten a few more baskets to fall in an abysmal shooting second half, it could have been over twenty. Tom Izzo claimed post-game that he felt like the New York Jets (probably a BIT extreme), but you get the point. After analyzing the game, it was as though they had read my previous entry here and took my advice straight to heart.
In the first ten seconds at MSG, Kris Joseph showed that last game was an aberration. He stole the ball, and aggressively drove straight to the hoop, despite knowing he was going to take a hard foul. The rest of the game was marked by his attacking the rim, getting to the foul line, and being a focal point of the offense, despite a poor shooting night. However, his 8/9 shooting from the free throw line was enough to offset this.
Additionally, Syracuse absolutely pounded the ball down low the entire night. They dropped forty points in the paint, from Rick Jackson hooks to pounding the offensive glass, (More on him later), attacks to the basket from Joseph, Scoop Jardine, and even C.J. Fair, and transition baskets created from a stifling defense and 16 forced turnovers.
Okay, so maybe I exaggerated a bit. I can’t take all the credit for Syracuse’s vastly improved game plan, but it was refreshing to see. Jackson proved that his huge start to the season against undersized opponents are no joke, torching the big and deep Spartans for a monstrous 17 points and 16 rebounds, as well as dominating the paint on both sides of the ball.
Most impressive of all, however, was the aspect of Syracuse I’m starting to think this year’s team is going to hang their hats on: defense. I already mentioned the turnovers, but even on possessions Sparty did manage to get a shot off against the swarming, active Orange zone, they were forced into taking 24 3 point attempts, a far cry from the pound it inside ball a coach who has his players practice in football pads expects from his team on the offensive end.
So at last, Syracuse looks like a top ten team, has a quality win to its resume, and had even Jim Boeheim saying some positive things at the post-game press conference. Maybe it was his team understanding how much this tournament means to him, playing for his very close friend for whom this tournament is named, Jim Valvano. Or maybe, this team is finally starting to figure out how to be successful with each other. Either way, it was one heck of a showing by a team who was filled with questions marks a day ago at this time.
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Written by Curt Bell