One of the main keys in SU's strong showing was their ability to show some focus early in both halves. It seems that Syracuse has had a lot of difficulty in playing with intensity in the early part of games this year, but Saturday was a different story. In a surprise move, Boeheim once again switched up the starting lineup, this time starting SO G Andy Rautins in place of Paul Harris.
Baylor struck first with a thunderous dunk by Charles Rogers, but SU's interior defense tightened up after that. Boeheim's change to the starting lineup paid quick dividends as Rautins hit a three pointer to get the Orange offense on track. With the Orange controlling the defensive boards, the team was able to get out and run more consistently, which led to their highest point output of the season. Syracuse owned a 44-28 advantage on the glass, and most importantly limited Baylor to only 6 offensive rebounds.
In addition to the stellar shooting of Nichols, SU got key contributions from Darryl Watkins (15 pts, 8 reb, 3 bs), Andy Rautins (10 pts, 2 ast), Josh Wright (9 ast), and Paul Harris (15 pts, 8 reb, 4 ast). Terrence Roberts also chipped in 8 pts, 6 reb, and 4 ast while showing a nice midrange shooting touch on a couple of occasions.
The strong showing by Watkins really set the stage for the game. Mookie was extremely energized and active on the offensive end and showed pretty good hands in catching several difficult passes. His activity around the basket forced opposing big man Mamadou Diene into early foul trouble, which limited Baylor's ability to compete on the interior. Diene came into the game averaging almost 8 boards and more than 3 blocks per game, but was thoroughly outplayed by Watkins.
The major negative was that SU could not contain freshman G Tweety Carter, who poured in a remarkable 31 points off the bench. Carter, a Jordan All-American who was passed over by many higher ranked programs, displayed excellent range and touch, connecting on 7 three point shots. Fortunately for SU, most of his damage was done well after Nichols had put the game out of reach.
It was a curious game for SU frosh Paul Harris, who played sparingly (and made no impact) in the first half. Although no word has come from head coach Jim Boeheim, it seems very strange that Harris would be benched after seeing almost 30 minutes a night through ten games. After putting up another donut in the first half, Harris once again saved his best play for the second half. The Baylor players could not contain his drives to the paint and he went to the line for 8 shots, knocking down 7. SU shot a sizzling 83.3% from the line (25-30).
Harris's statline was very impressive considering that he played only 16 minutes, but much of the damage came after SU had opened a large lead. Still, he showed great court vision and started to showcase the ballhandling and passing abilities that had disappeared in recent games. Perhaps Boeheim was using the pseudo-benching as a way to motivate Harris. If that was his intent, it appears that it worked.
Syracuse now has only 3 more games before Big East play starts. SU will play Drexel on Tuesday, followed by Hofstra and St. Bonaventure. Drexel enters the game 6-2 on the season, having just knocked off Villanova 81-76 on the road. They also have strong wins over St. Josephs and Vermont, but were beaten by 19 at Penn.
The Dragons have a lot of experience in seniors Bashir Mason (6-0 G), Chaz Crawford (6-10 F), and Dominick Mejia (6-5 G). All three players are starters, and they are joined in the starting lineup by sophomores Scott Rogers (6-3 G) and Frank Elegar (6-9 C). Drexel has pretty good size for a mid-major team and both Crawford and Elegar are quality players. Elegar leads the team in scoring at 14.1 ppg, and Crawford is a formidable rebounder and shot blocker (8.9 rpg, 4.3 bs).
Mason is the key player for the Dragons, leading the team with 30 assists. He is a steady scorer and solid defender, but when pressured he will cough up the ball with regularity. He averages more than 3 turnovers per contest. He is a solid three point shooter but doesn't shoot as much as teammates Tramayne Hawthorne and Dominick Mejia. Hawthorne (6-0 SO G) is the team's best scorer off the bench at nearly 10 points per game, and he has made almost half of three pointers he's launched this year (17-37).
Syracuse should once again have a distinct physical advantage over the Dragons. If the Orange can continue to control the defensive glass, they should have no trouble in winning this game. The most important aspect of this game will be to get SO G Eric Devendorf back on track. After a fairly strong start, Devo has been very sluggish in recent games.
On Saturday night, Devendorf scored in double figures for the first time in three weeks, but 9 of his 11 points came from the line. He has had trouble finishing and making long-range shots in the flow of the offense. It will be very important for SU to develop another reliable scorer going into the Big East season, and on paper it looks like that scorer should be Eric Devendorf. It is now up to him to regain the swagger and composure that helped him land a spot on the Big East All-Newcomer team last year.