Men's Basketball

Syracuse men’s basketball roundtable: Back-to-back wins, importance of Virginia Tech game, areas for improvement

Jacob Greenfeld | Asst. Photo Editor

SU's defense blocked nine shots against Pittsburgh as the 2-3 zone has looked much improved in the Orange's past two games.

Just a week ago, Syracuse’s season seemed headed for rock bottom. A double-digit loss at Boston College compounded SU’s worst-ever Carrier Dome loss, a 33-point defeat to St. John’s. Yet the Orange (10-6, 2-1 Atlantic Coast) beat two quality opponents last week in Miami and Pittsburgh — teams that have combined to win 23 games. SU now has a quick turnaround, as Tuesday it faces off against No. 21 Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

Beat writers Connor Grossman, Matt Schneidman and Paul Schwedelson answer three questions surrounding the Orange.

1. What’s been most surprising and impressive about Syracuse’s back-to-back wins over Miami and Pittsburgh?

Connor Grossman: It’s a toss-up between John Gillon’s improvement and Syracuse looking competent on defense. But while the guard play has been pretty poor in SU’s losses, defensive woes have even made some wins appear closer than they should have been. So it certainly comes as a surprise, after jarring losses to St. John’s and Boston College, that the Orange figured itself out defensively against quality conference opponents in Pitt and Miami.

As was written about after beating the Panthers, Syracuse repeatedly sealed off the high post. That forced Jamel Artis, the ACC’s second leading scorer, to find other avenues to beat SU’s defense. Looking back on the Panthers’ first half, in which they shot 20.7 percent from the field, SU head coach Jim Boeheim called it “the best defense we’ve played (since) I can’t even remember.” It gave Syracuse a 21-point halftime lead, which it parlayed into an 11-point win. Maybe SU’s defense hasn’t been unbelievable, but it hasn’t been awful, and that’s largely the standard it had set through the first 14 games.

Matt Schneidman: I won’t try and overlap too much, so I’m going to go with the tight rotation Boeheim has used the last two games. So much was made before the season of how this team could go nine deep, but Syracuse is playing its best basketball of the year when Boeheim is rolling out five. It’s the logical move when that group has played so well the last two contests – that’s not why it’s been the most surprising revelation.

What’s more surprising is how Frank Howard, Dajuan Coleman and Taurean Thompson, significant contributors at one point or another this season, have been relegated to single-digit minutes, if that. It’s opened up chances to shine for Tyler Roberson and John Gillon, who have done just that, suddenly flipping the script on a season that seemed to be in a downward spiral.

Paul Schwedelson: Walking out of Conte Forum a week ago in Chestnut Hill, I could probably count the remaining surefire ACC wins I expected SU to get on one hand. Obviously there are always upsets we won’t see coming, but the Orange had very few games that fans could bank on SU winning.

But to pick one answer, I’ll go with Tyler Roberson’s resurgence. At the end of nonconference play, I had thought there was a chance we’d seen the last of him in significant minutes. And in three ACC games, Roberson’s averaged 31 minutes. What do I know? He’s provided a spark on the defensive end (See: career-high six blocks against Pitt) that I didn’t see coming. Andrew White said when he can play on the back line of the defense alongside an active and ferocious Roberson, it makes it fun to be a part of. And if the Orange can fully buy in on defense, SU can — and has — improve tremendously.

2. Given where SU is at and the state of the ACC as a whole, how important is Tuesday’s road game at Virginia Tech? 

C.G.: I don’t think there’s any question about the importance of every conference game from this juncture, especially given Syracuse’s precarious spot. There’s only three teams in the ACC that haven’t received a vote in the AP Top 25. One of those three teams (Boston College) already beat SU. The Orange is going to have to win a vast majority of its games from this point to land in the Tournament, and that likely includes a marquee win against a highly-ranked opponent like Duke or Louisville, not to mention Virginia Tech.

M.S.: Virginia Tech probably won’t be ranked anymore when Syracuse visits the Hokies after Buzz Williams’ team lost to Florida State on Saturday, but it’s a chance for a third straight marquee win nonetheless. It certainly wouldn’t be a bad loss, but there’s so much parity in the league and no rhyme or reason to anything about conference play thus far that adding resume-building wins early on can do nothing but help. There’s also the aspect of winning a game on the road, which Syracuse hasn’t done yet this year. Tuesday’s matchup has that added bonus if the Orange can win a third in a row.

P.S.: The game against Virginia Tech is important because SU needs to win on the road. Home wins are nice, but given Syracuse’s current spot, it’s going to need to steal some games. When you break the schedule down into chunks, I think the Orange needs to win two of its next four. The next four games are at VT on Tuesday, home against BC on Saturday and then on the road at North Carolina and at Notre Dame.

Syracuse can’t afford another loss to Boston College, and Syracuse has improved so let’s count that as a win. That means SU needs to steal a win on the road, and the matchup against the Hokies is the least daunting of those three trips. The Orange is on fire right now and must strike while the iron’s hot.

3. The Orange has impressed over its last two games, but where is one area it can still improve in?

C.G.: While defense has been an obvious area of growth, it’s also an easy target to seek more improvement from. Specifically in the form of 3-point defense. Throughout most of Syracuse’s non-conference schedule, it was holding opponents to the lowest 3-point percentage of any ACC team.

Now it appears that was a facade, largely because of the inferior opponents matched up with the Orange. SU allowed Miami to bury 11 3-pointers, but still won by 15. After shutting out Pitt behind the arc in the first half, Syracuse relented and the Panthers shot 6-of-12 from deep. The Orange will be tested against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, the ACC’s top 3-point shooting teams, in the next four games. Three-point defense might be the difference.

M.S.: Boeheim repeatedly said after Saturday’s game that this team still needs to get a lot better. While it won’t get too much better than the Orange’s past two games from a Syracuse perspective, SU can do a much better job on the defensive glass. In the past two games, Miami and Pittsburgh have 29 total offensive rebounds, and Syracuse has a minus-four total on the boards despite a plus-26 margin where it matters most.

SU’s next two opponents, Virginia Tech and BC, are in the bottom half of the league in rebounds per game, but the Orange will be tested far more after that against a North Carolina team first in the league with 45.6 rebounds per game.

P.S.: Connor and Matt touched on the two most glaring areas for Syracuse to improve so I’ll touch on some things that I’m not sure how important they are, but these things could certainly give SU a few big boosts. Taurean Thompson needs to improve his defense, Dajuan Coleman’s knees could get stronger and Frank Howard’s ball security has lots of room for growth. Those three all fall under the larger umbrella of receiving contributions from players on the outside of the rotation looking in. Boeheim mentioned some of these things at the end of his press conference on Saturday as important for Syracuse to round out to its full potential and reach a point good enough to take down the kingpins of the ACC.

John Gillon sat at his locker after the win over Pitt with a bag of ice on each of his knees and said this is the first time in his career he’s had to receive special treatment from trainers. By the same token, he’s played better with more playing time, so who knows. But how long Syracuse can go playing just five players remains to be seen. I get it, they’re all still young bucks in the grand scheme of things, but the conference is a grueling one and SU has two or three games a week the rest of the way. Thompson, Coleman and Howard may not be needed, but if they are, SU can’t afford to play liabilities.

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