It certainly wasn't a textbook "picture-perfect" win, but Syracuse's 97-89 victory over the Siena Saints proved to be both highly entertaining and immensely instructive. The entertaining part was the fast-paced up and down action, while the instructive part was getting a look at the young Orange and how Boeheim plans to utilize his ample talent. It took only 20 minutes into the season for the team to fall back to zone and for the rotation to get whittled down to 7 guys. It took even less than that to realize that Jonny Flynn is an absolute star in the making. The freshman duo of Flynn and Donte Green combined for 42 points and elicited many an "ooh and ahh" from the Carrier Dome faithful.
The Orange managed to hold on to a slim 3 to 6 point lead for most of the second half despite turning the ball over repeatedly and giving up a boatload of points in transition. SU played a fairly decent first half and held a comfortable 14 point lead at the break, but the Saints came out of the lockerroom fired up after halftime. Siena went on a 12-2 run to open the second half and closed the gap to 55-51. That's when Jonny Flynn took over the game. Bringing back images of Sherman Douglas, Flynn sprinted into the lane past the defense, hung in the air just long enough to freeze the defender, and calmly dropped the ball off the glass and in.
This much needed basket allowed Syracuse to get back on track, and after the Orange pounded the interior with a combined 9 points from Harris, Onuaku, and Rick Jackson, the lead was back up to 66-56. Siena made another push with a three pointer from Tay Fisher and a layup from Edwin Ubiles (20 pts, 8 reb), but again Jonny Flynn had an answer. The youngster ignited the Carrier Dome crowd by hitting three consecutive trifectas over a span of 59 seconds to put SU up by 9, effectively giving the team enough breathing room to close out the game.
When Flynn wasn't busy scoring, he was busy finding the open man. He handed out a team-high 9 assists and punctuated his one-man scoring show with a pair of beautiful passes on the break, finding Arinze Onuaku (12 pts, 6 reb) streaking down the lane for a thunder dunk and Donte Greene (14 pts, 7 reb) flying in from the wing for a silky-smooth lay-in. The 'Cuse then closed out the game at the line, hitting 6 of 8 over the final 1:15.
Despite the many highlight reel plays, it wasn't all positives tonight. Lost in the offensive explosion was the fact that the Syracuse's defense, be it man to man or zone, was borderline pathetic. Onuaku and Jackson found themselves out of position several times, and Siena also beat the Orange perimeter defenders with effective screens at the top of the key. Even worse than the halfcourt defense was the transition defense. The two main offenders here were Eric Devendorf and Donte Greene, both of whom had some serious lapses of effort.
The other weakness that Siena exploited to full effect was ballhandling. The Orange players committed 23 turnovers and it wasn't until late in the game that they got serious about taking care of the ball. Seasoned veterans Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf combined for 11 of the miscues, while Flynn handed over the ball 5 times himself. The most frustrating part of the turnover parade was the manner in which they were committed; many were simply unforced errors where SU players tried difficult long passes through the defense. This is one aspect of play that MUST be rectified if this team truly strives for greatness.
The negatives were of course balanced out by several positives. Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris had 6 and 4 assists respectively, backing up Flynn's excellent distribution. SU also hit 75% from the free throw line, made 11-21 from downtown, and dominated the Saints on the glass 42-24. Siena has the type of small, active team that often managed to outquick the Orange on the glass last year.
Gobblin' up rebounds: Harris and Onuaku control the paint.
Jonny Flynn - His 28 pt, 9 ast, 5 reb statline was simply stunning for a college debut. While he will certainly have his share of ups and downs as a frosh, there is no doubting his talent. He made all the right plays at the right time tonight. That's what leaders do.
Eric Devendorf - Devo was sort of the forgotten man tonight. He scored 19 points, handed out 6 assists, and hit a trio of three-point shots. The turnovers need to come down, but otherwise he is looking like a more mature player out there and not forcing the action as much as he did in the past.
Eric Devendorf drives to the hoop.
Paul Harris - Do-It-All Paul had some excellent moments and some not-so-good moments. He is so tenacious in the paint and plays so hard that you wonder if he can go 35 minutes night in, night out. He hit on a few mid-range jumpers and eliminated the blocked shot attempts that were so problematic last year. Now he needs to take better care of the ball. He transitions so seemlessly from defense to offense that he will help this team score a ton of points without even making the scoring shot or pass. I liked that his perimeter shot is starting to fall, but I would still prefer for him not to take it early in the shot clock. Late in the game he once again took ownership of the defensive glass and turned rebounds into quick points with assists to Johnny Flynn and Donte Greene.
Donte Greene - After spectacular showings in the first two exhibitions, Greene came back down to earth a little tonight. There were long stretches of the game where he completely disappeared, but he turned things on late in the game when needed. I didn't like his sloppy inbounds passes and his John Wallace-like transition defense, but his speed in transition made a big difference late in the game. He needs to be a bit smarter about firing up the perimeter shot - he had back to back misses from the baseline at about the 4 minute mark that allowed Siena to get back into the game. He got inside a few times for easy scores and also managed 5 blocked shots.
Arinze Onuaku - The Big O (Part Deux) scored a career high 12 points and added 6 boards. As he rounds into shape, he will prove to be an offensive upgrade from Mookie Watkins, but tonight he was also a defensive downgrade. He needs to continue to improve his conditioning, but you have to love how he attacks the basket, keeps the ball high, and doesn't waste dribbles when surrounded by smaller defenders.
Rick Jackson - 8 points in 9 minutes = great offensive production. That spin move/lefty baby hook was SWEET. Not much else to say except [copy last line of Onuaku evaluation and paste here]. You have to go back a long ways to find and interior duo who have more offensive potential than Onuaku and Jackson. I just worry about their ability to stop anyone.
Kristof Ongenaet - Gives you energy and effort off the bench. I'd actually like to see Jackson and Ongenaet get a few more minutes now, as Onuaku looked to be pretty well winded in the second half. It's hard to tell so early in the season, but this signing is looking like a perfect fit, as he complements the team as the consummate role player quite well.
Scoop Jardine - Well, the battle for the back up point guard slot remains wide open. Scoop and Josh took turns throwing the ball away and neither did much of anything to impress Boeheim. Look for JB to limit both of their minutes for the rest of the NIT, but expect them both to get an opportunity to show what they can do against the lesser competition on the SU schedule.
Final Notes: Yeah, it was a sloppy game, but looking at the big picture I can't help but be excited. All the individual pieces are here - balanced offense, a heady and skilled point guard, an explosive wing, some interior firepower, and a walk-through-a-brick-wall-for-a-win leader. The turnovers were frustrating and worrisome, but they represent a correctable problem. The biggest concern remains interior defense, which will be put to the test tomorrow night when SU takes on St. Josephs for the right to advance to the NIT semis. The Hawks feature a formidable frontline with 6-11 Ahmad Nivins, 6-10 Pat Calathes, and 6-8 Rob Ferguson.