Men's Basketball

Hass: Composed Syracuse core continues to close games at elite level

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Syracuse is the ultimate tease.

The other team always thinks it’s getting some, but never ends up scoring late in the game.

The Orange lets an inferior team hang around, then pulls away in the waning minutes. It’s happened all season. Every time the possibility of an upset emerges, it quickly fades.

That’s because this Syracuse (19-0, 6-0 Atlantic Coast) team is built to thrive in the clutch. Tyler Ennis, C.J. Fair and company turn on their mojo when it matters most. They’re wired to win. And playing in these close games will help Syracuse tremendously in the big dance.

“This team has made plays at the end of games,” said SU head coach Jim Boeheim. “I don’t care what our record is. We’ve had seven games just like this one that could have easily gone the other way.

“All seven games, somebody’s made a play.”

SU’s latest victim was Miami (10-9, 2-5) on Saturday afternoon at the BankUnited Center. The Hurricanes catapulted back into contention, but Syracuse extinguished their comeback attempt without much difficulty.

As he sat at the podium, Boeheim rattled off the games Syracuse could have easily lost this year: St. Francis, Boston College, Pittsburgh and Miami — twice. There were two more he couldn’t recall.

The fact that the usually razor-sharp Boeheim didn’t immediately remember all of SU’s close games shows just how many tight games Syracuse has been in, and won.

Competitive games early in the season prepare teams for March. And as we’ve watched the Orange come away with a win time and again, we’ve learned that SU is equipped to put teams away.

Syracuse never panics or shows much fire. While the other team does everything it possibly can to climb back into the game, it does so with emotion. When Davon Reed scored a bucket, he grinned and shook both arms with vigor, bellowing before Tonye Jekiri helped him up.

But when Ennis hit a floater down the other end to give SU the lead for good, he just jogged down the court like nothing important had happened. Just another day at the office. One more play for NBA scouts to salivate over and for Ennis — and the rest of the Orange — to downplay.

The fact that no one on Syracuse is hotheaded or full of too much emotion might ultimately prove golden. Grant’s probably the most vivacious of the core seven players, but he’s all business on the court.

Fair is soft spoken. Ennis is imperturbable. Cooney shows emotion sometimes, but overall he just goes about his way unaffected.

It’s almost like Syracuse is just playing mind games with the other team. Oh, Boston College, you think you can hang? Nope. Time for a run. Pittsburgh, same to you. And Miami, same deal coming your way. You know the drill by now.

Just like most savvy coaches, though, Boeheim would like to see fewer close games. Winning close games is great, but they also expose flaws.

“That’s a great attribute to have,” Boeheim said, “but it also reminds you that you’re perilously close to having three or four losses.”

He reminded the media just how stacked the ACC is. Though the conference isn’t what it was chalked up to be back in the preseason, it still features six or seven probable tournament teams, and three or four others vying for a spot in the dance.

Wake Forest, for example, Syracuse’s next opponent, is 14-6 and just knocked off Notre Dame. There’s no easy out, which makes the ability to win close games that much more imperative.

Winning close games with regularity is sometimes more indicative of a team’s success long term, though. Not every game’s going to be a cakewalk, like SU’s 22-point win over Colgate in November.

Cakewalks don’t come frequently in college basketball, and there aren’t any more on Syracuse’s schedule. Every game will continue to show fans why the Orange is a trendy and logical pick to return to the Final Four.

When the game is on the line, no team in the country is better at closing the deal.

And why is that?

“Well, we have good players,” Boeheim said. “It can’t be coaching. It’s got to be players.”

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