Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Syracuse passes first real test of season, downs Michigan St.

Just last week, I deemed the Syracuse Orange an overrated basketball team. It wasn't just me though; Jim Boeheim felt much the same way about his squad. Watching them struggle to win against N.C. State in person at the Carrier Dome on Saturday, I thought Tom Izzo and Michigan State were going to take care of business against Boeheim's boys.

Boy was I wrong. After falling behind 5-1 early, Syracuse went on a 24-8 run and held a 12-point lead less than 11 minutes into the game. The Spartans would cut the Orange lead to just two with 13:16 left in the second half, but Syracuse never relinquished their lead and pulled away with a 24-12 run.

Michigan St. has struggled with turnovers all season and last night was no different against the 2-3 zone, as Izzo's team committed 20 turnovers. They settled for jump shots all game, went just 7-for-24 from three-point range and rarely tried to attack the hoop, resulting in a 42-24 advantage for Syracuse in points in the paints and a 38-30 advantage on the boards.

After the game, Izzo said his team played like "sissies" and that he felt like the New York Jets (ouch, burn!). Rick Jackson was an absolute monster down low for the Orange with 17 points and 16 rebounds while Scoop Jardine added 19 points on a surprisingly efficient 7-for-9 shooting and Kris Joseph added 14.

This Syracuse team lost a lot from last season and their weaknesses are still obvious. The departure of Wes Johnson has left the team without a go-to scorer as Joseph hasn't stepped up like many, including me, thought he would. The Orange miss the outside shooting of Andy Rautins as they went just 2-for-11 from beyond the arc. Jackson's improvement, however, has helped mask the loss of big man Arinze Onuaku.

Historically, Michigan State is a team that struggles early while playing one of the nation's toughest schedules, while Syracuse thrives against lesser competition. This is why Izzo's teams tend to outperform their seed in the NCAA tournament while Syracuse is a prime upset candidate.

As much as I'd like to believe in the Orange as a top-10 team RIGHT NOW, I just can't (I'll give them top 15, though). They lack a go-to guy in crunch time and without any real three-point threats, they will need to rely on their defense to force turnovers if they ever fall behind by a significant amount.

Michigan State is a very talented team but they aren't a top-10 squad either, not at this point of the season. I wouldn't be surprised to see these teams playing in the Sweet 16 or even the Elite 8 come March, but they both have a lot of work to do.

Syracuse might find the going tough in the Big East or against teams that can match up with Jackson down low, while the Spartans need to get Kalin Lucas back to 100 percent. What helps both teams is their depth; players like Draymond Green and Korey Luscious from Michigan State would start for most teams in the country and C.J. Fair has looked great in limited minutes this season for Syracuse.

I wouldn't be surprised if Fair develops into a go-to scorer for Syracuse later in the conference season. The kid can flat out score and he's not afraid to take the ball to the hoop. His outside shot needs work but unless Joseph breaks out of his early-season funk, Fair may be the answer for the Orange come 2011.

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