And then, the lights turned on.
The Orange broke open a one point game with a 29-13 run to end the first half up 52-35 and carried that momentum out of the break, outscoring the Dolphins 57-24 after halftime to come away with a 109-59 win in their final preseason tune-up before the real season tips off on Monday night.
Perhaps as expected, the fresh faces were the ones who led the way and impressed the most.
Donte Greene showed that he could be an offensive force for more than just a half, scoring 26 points on 10-of-15 shooting, including 4-of-8 from beyond the arc, while playing just 23 minutes and checking out of the game permanently with 14 minutes to play. Rick Jackson came on strong in the second half and finished with a monster effort of 17 points and 16 boards, connecting on 8-of-14 shots and hauling in six rebounds on the offensive glass.
Jonny Flynn finished the game with a solid line of 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting (2-of-3 from deep), four assists, and four steals, but perhaps the third most impressive was Kristof Ongeneat. For the second straight game Kristof proved to be a pleasant surprise, showing a knack for wrestling away rebounds and a willingness to mix it up inside, and even making a few tough finishes to end the game with six points and six boards.
It wasn't only the youngsters who put up impressive numbers, though. Eric Devendorf was quiet from a scoring standpoint, attempting only five shots (making three) and finishing with 12 points, but the junior shooting guard looked like a poised veteran point man in handing out 10 assists without committing a single turnover.
Paul Harris finished with eight points and nine boards, and at times looked like the most dominant player on the floor, ripping down rebounds from taller players and immediately turning the play into a fast break, with Do-It-All leading the way by pushing the rock up the court.
For the second game in a row, Arinze Onuaku showed that he's all the way back from the injury that sidelined him a year ago. The big man showed outstanding touch around the rim, knocking down all four of his shot attempts and going 3-of-3 from the stripe to finish with 11 points and six rebounds.
As the game started though, the Orange showed that they have a long way to go before they can be a consistent, dangerous team. There are flashes of brilliance, but nearly as many mistakes that remind you of just how young and inexperienced this team is. The flashes have already been touched on, but the mistakes need mentioning as well.
From the get go, it was clear that the Orange will really struggle defending the post this season. The first basket of the game for LeMoyne came only a few seconds into the action on a layup from the block, and it was indicative of where the Dolphins would find most of their offensive success throughout the night.
Syracuse came out playing man to man, and repeatedly the young post players displayed poor defensive positioning on the interior, and made it clear that this team will really miss a pair of shot blockers like Mookie Watkins and Terrence Roberts, who were able to clean up their positioning mistakes during their careers by using their superior athleticism to recover for swats.
In the first half alone, Laurence Ekperigin abused the Orange front line to the tune of 14 points on 7-of-11 shooting, and the Dolphins were able to repeatedly get into the lane and finish against the Orange bigs. Things changed in the second half with the return of Onuaku, who had early foul trouble, and as the Orange turned up the pressure and forced some turnovers, but it is an issue that must be addressed. Otherwise, a team like Georgetown is going to have a field day in the paint.
One player who really looks to be able to help in this aspect is Ongeneat, who has a level of toughness and tenacity that players like Jackson and Greene lack at this stage. When Kristof and Arinze were in the game, the Dolphins had a tougher time both grabbing boards and finding an easy lane to the bucket. Kristof showed good anticipation skills, and Arinze is simply enough of a beast to bully his man out of the paint.
Another potential weakness is, well, the literal weakness of the freshmen. This is obviously to be expected of long, lanky players like Greene and Jackson, who will need some time in the weight room before they can fulfill their potential. Early in the game was the most glaring example of Greene's lack of strength, when #5 had good position for a defensive rebound on a missed three but had the ball ripped away from behind, leading to Onuaku's second foul on a follow attempt.
With the physical weakness comes suspect rebounding, due in large part to the fact that our young bigs may well get pushed around and rely too much on their quickness and athleticism to snare boards.
Of course, they could also just let Paul, Kristof, and Arinze crash the boards and get the heck out of the way.
Regardless, it may well have been youthful mistakes at least for Jackson, because as the game went on he seemed to grow more comfortable and with that comfort level came increased confidence and assertiveness, and soon enough every defensive board belonged to the youngster from Philly.
Along with potential problems guarding the post and grabbing boards is the fact that, quite simply, these guys just haven't played together much. It's pretty evident when you watch this team that one guy doesn't quite know the strengths and weaknesses of another quite yet. Too often tonight there would be a lazy or sloppy pass or a bullet pass off the hands of the wrong guy that was clearly due to the fact that these guys just don't understand yet how to anticipate where their teammates will be and what they are capable of doing on the floor.
Once they get more time on the floor together, this problem will dissolve. Thankfully for Jim Boeheim and Syracuse fans everywhere, these guys will only get more and more comfortable playing with each other as the season goes on, so that by the time February and March roll around the Orange have a chance of being one of the most exciting, explosive offensive teams in the land.
They will need to be, because their defense, at least at this point, relies way too much on forcing turnovers and steals on the perimeter. The good news is, Jimmy B has at his disposal two absolute defensive demons in Johnny Flynn and Paul Harris. A coach like Norman Dale would love these guys, because at the end of every game they'll not only know what chewing gum flavor their assignments are, but they will have already chewed them up and spit them out. Their perimeter defense and ball hawking style is going to lead to many, many breakout opportunities.
It's easy to look at the final score of a game like this and come to the conclusion that the Orange are world beaters, with the orange colored glasses secured and the fact that it was a Division II opponent completely forgotten. There are good things and bad to be taken from a game like this.
The bad has been touched on. The good, well, there's a lot to like about this team right now.
Greene is a silky smooth scorer with great range. At this point, he looks like a better perimeter shooter than Carmelo at the same stage, but doesn't have nearly the complete game of Anthony. His offensive game most closely resembles Kevin Durant, with his three point accuracy and whirling dervish drives and pull up jumpers. However, unlike Durant he just doesn't have that aggressive mentality that allows him to dominate for 40 minutes and grab 10 boards per game. He could be an unstoppable offensive force, but he has to want it all game long.
There's also plenty to like about our new big men, despite the lack of size and bulk. Despite missing a few (including a couple that were cannon shots off the glass by Jackson) that they'll likely make later in their careers, Jackson and Ongeneat showed that they are capable scorers who are willing to mix it up. In Kristof's case, he's deceptively strong and consistently feisty, and he'll be a fan favorite in his two years on the hill.
While there was a lot of sloppy passing and ball handling, it's absolutely clear that this is the best passing team Boeheim has had in years. We all know that Flynn, Harris, Scoop, Greene, and Devo (when he's not being totally lackadaisical) can handle and pass the rock, but guys like Jackson, Kristof, and Onuaku all seem to have good hands and the ability to spot open teammates. Heck, even Sean Williams, in his limited action, showed solid vision in chalking up his first assist in a Syracuse uniform when he dumped a pass over two defenders heads down to Jackson for an easy slam.
It really cannot be stressed enough that this team, once they gain a bit more experience and time playing together, will be one of the most fun teams Orange fans have had to watch in years. They move the ball well enough, shoot the ball well enough, and all run well enough that we could see a team with the capability to put up 90 or 100 points on any given night.
Unfortunately, they don't quite know each other well enough, don't quite shoot it well enough, and don't quite rebound it well enough, meaning we could also see a few games in the 50 to 60 point range early in the year.
When this team clicks though, look out. It's going to be an entertaining season, that is for sure. Mostly for the team, but additionally for the fun of seeing Devin Brennan-McBride as the first victim of the new Nike uniform system, with the jersey showing his gut just enough, and the back so narrow that the poor guy has to have "Brennan" stitched ABOVE "McBride" on the back. You almost get the feeling that he's our very own Charlie Brown.
And who doesn't love Charlie Brown?