Back-to-back losses and an 0-2 start to conference play was exactly what the Syracuse Orange needed to avoid. Despite hanging tough with Pittsburgh in the ACC opener for both teams, a late run by the Panthers put the game out of reach and brought to an end a three-game Syracuse winning streak. The Orange looked like they might bounce back after starting strong to the then 13th ranked Miami Hurricanes, but an awful second half aided by some questionable officiating helped the guys from South Beach come back for the win.
Non-conference games are important for a couple of reasons, mainly getting a rhythm of team play and what combinations of players work best together. But, most teams agree, conference play is where the real action heats up. This year was expected to be a down year for the Orange, but the team was still expected to be competitive and finish about the middle of the pack in the ACC (the team was picked 8th by coaches). But a sluggish start to conference play, both offensively and defensively creates more questions than answers.
Who is the go-to guy on this team? Is there going to be someone that steps up as the low-post threat? How soon will tired legs create a problem for the short bench?
Even with these questions, there were still some key players this week to highlight for strong play to kick off the main-event season.
Highlights of the Week
Malachi Richardson: 30 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, 67 minutes
It seems every time I put someone as my lowlight of the week, they step it into a higher gear the following week. Richardson had a strong showing against Pittsburgh, finishing with 10 points on 4-7 shooting, but was the only Orange player to ever get anything going against Miami. The freshman finished with a career-high 20 points, going 5-6 from three-point range in the process. These were the type of games Richardson was recruited for, so he could stretch the defense and knock down long range shots. In an otherwise difficult week, Richardson really showed what he can be for the Orange.
Tyler Roberson: 20 points, 18 rebounds, 3 blocks, 1 steal, 66 minutes
Roberson is not a polished offensive player that's going to wow you with athleticism, but he isn't afraid to get dirty to get a bucket or grab an offensive rebound to extend a possession by kicking it out to a three-point shooter. He does little things that help the team stay in games. This week, his skills were on display separately in both games. Against Pittsburgh, he finished with 15 points on 7-12 shooting, mostly from close range. Against the Hurricanes, he was a rebounding machine in the first half, finishing with 11 rebounds, nine coming in the first half. Sometimes he has trouble finishing after grabbing an offensive board, but nine of his 18 total rebounds came on the offensive end, proving how valuable he is for this team that struggles inside, especially with rebounding.
Lowlights of the Week
Michael Gbinije: 24 points, 11 assists, 9 rebounds, 3 steals, 12 turnovers, 78 minutes
We'll start with the good here. Gbinije has scored in double digits in every game this season, a streak that almost came to an end against Miami if it weren't for free throws in the final minutes. He was one off his season-high for assists against Pittsburgh, finishing with seven. Now, for the bad. The small forward turned point guard had 12 turnovers, eight coming against Miami, a season-high. He was 7-26 from the field, a shooting percentage of 26.9%, including 1-11 from three. Too many trips end with a bad shot from Gbinije with a teammate open or a turnover because he was trying to fit a pass in a space it couldn't go. With a team that struggles inside, Gbinije needs to be making more shots from outside or finding teammates that can finish. I think he has done an admirable job in the switch to point guard, but he needs to take that next step in the maturation process.
DaJuan Coleman: 6 points, 5 rebounds, 1 block, 1 steal, 32 minutes
Coleman looked like he was beginning to turn a corner over the last three games, playing arguably the best basketball of his career. But as conference play started up, he took a major step backwards. He shot 50% from the field this week, but only took six shots. Most of that was because he was consistently in foul trouble, fouling out of both games played this week. He needs to play smarter if the Orange want to stand a chance this season against the bigger bodies in the ACC.
In search of their first conference win, the Orange return to the Carrier Dome Tuesday against an 8-6 Clemson team. That game will be on the ACC Network, and the next time out, Syracuse will be playing on the big stage, facing off against the 14-2, No. 6 North Carolina Tar Heels Saturday night on ESPN.