Wednesday’s Big East opener was no exception. The Johnnies were able to keep the game close by forcing play to degenerate into a veritable slugfest. Both teams had key players in significant foul trouble throughout the game. When all was said and done, 40 fouls had been called and 52 free throws had been attempted. Despite these obstacles, Syracuse was able to prevail 76-70 behind a monster game from Arinze Onuaku, who stuffed the stat sheet with 23 points and 13 rebounds.
While the bulk of the game fit the “ugly” tag, the first ten minutes were simply beautiful. Syracuse went right at the smaller St. Johns defenders on the first possession and Onuaku scored an easy bucket on a smooth drop step move. This proved to be the first of many for the big sophomore from Virginia.
With Onuaku dominating on the interior, Donte Greene took over on the perimeter. Greene came out like a House on Fire! House on Fire!, making shots from all over the court. After missing his first shot on a forced three pointer, Flynn found him on the wing for an open look. Swish. Then came another three from the corner. Swish. Then a turnaround jumper, and putback. Swish Swish. Images of Demetris Nichols and his amazing 37 point game against St. Johns in the Dome last year came leaping into my head.
Onuaku is improving by leaps and bounds.
Suddenly the Orange had a commanding 24-10 lead and it looked like the game would turn into a laugher. But this is Syracuse/St. Johns, and it never turns into a laugher. The Red Storm gradually got back into the game behind explosive freshman Justin Burrell, who was relentless attacking the glass. Burrell tallied 12 points before the break and helped St. Johns to an 18-6 run, pulling the Johnnies to within 2 points at 30-28.
A key factor in St. Johns' comeback was some very impatient and sloppy play by the Orange, most notably from Donte Greene. While Greene was responsible for giving SU the big early lead, he was equally responsible for opening a window of opportunity for the Red Storm to get back in the game. He forced several ill-advised jumpers early in the shot clock and it seemed as if St. Johns turned most of these misses into fastbreak baskets.
Once again, the Orange had played 10 minutes of inspired, unselfish basketball, but then followed that up with some embarrassingly selfish play. While SU had built its advantage through solid passing and ball movement and strong interior play, it gave most of it back by settling for rushed perimeter shots. Shot selection, shot selection, shot selection.
To get his team out of its funk and keep the Red Storm off balance, Boeheim pulled the coaching strings and called for some man to man defense. The move paid off as the Orange regained a bit of momentum and pulled ahead by 7 points at the break. Paul Harris hit a pair of smooth pull-up midrange jumpers and Jonny Flynn finished the half by hitting a slick fadeaway just before the buzzer. SU 41, St. Johns 34.
While the man to man defense worked fairly well in the first half, it didn't have the same effectiveness in the second half. St. Johns kept sending Burrell to the glass and he continued to cause havoc. Burrell finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds and hit all 7 of his free throws in his Big East debut. Unfortunately for the Red Storm, they got little to no major contributions from anyone else. Perennial 'Cuse-killer Anthony Mason Jr managed only 4 first half points and spent a good portion of the second half on the bench with 4 fouls. He eventually came back late in the game to hit a pair of three pointers, but his 10 points and 2 rebounds were a far cry from his typical output against Syracuse.
Justin Burrell lived up to his nickname of "Manchild".
Meanwhile, Syracuse had foul trouble of its own to contend with. Donte Greene picked up his fourth foul early in the second half and subs Kristof Ongenaet and Rick Jackson both struggled to pick up the scoring slack left behind. A short jumper by Justin Burrell at the 12 minute mark cut the SU lead down to 2 points. With Greene on the bench, Boeheim turned to Onuaku to take on a bigger offensive role. Harris and Antonio Jardine both repeatedly broke down the St. Johns defense and made excellent off-the-dribble passes to the SU big man. Onuaku responded in an almost casual manner by catching everything thrown his way and turning most of these passes into easy points. Harris finished with 7 assists for the second game in a row and Jardine was no slouch with 4 of his own.
St. Johns proved difficult to put away. A Tomas Jasiulionis three-point play cut the SU lead down to 4 points with roughly 7 minutes left, but Scoop Jardine answered with a series of excellent plays. First he hit a crazy, whirling move in the paint, then followed that up with a steal and an assist to Onuaku. These plays catalyzed a 10-3 Syracuse run that basically put away the game.
Greene capped off the run with an alley-oop dunk, once again assisted by Jardine. The play came after Norm Roberts had his team switch to a 1-3-1 zone. Flynn and Jardine calmly played catch near the top of the key, lulling the Red Storm defenders to sleep before going over the top of the zone for Greene's Carrier Dome-rousing dunk. The Red Storm made one last late push behind a pair of Larry Wright triples, but a steal and layup by Jardine sealed the victory for the Orange.
Even though Syracuse finished out the game with no serious threat of defeat, the execution down the stretch was less than desirable. With the clock winding down, both Jardine and Flynn came up with steals and attacked the basket, rather than pulling the ball out to run clock. At that point in the game, the Orange didn't need points as much as they needed the clock to continue to run. These are the types of plays that could prove disastrous against better Big East teams.
1) Putting up 76 points against a traditionally stingy defense is definitely a good sign, but the 70 points allowed speaks to the fact that the team still has a lot of work to do on the defensive end. SU had just enough good moments on "D" to come up with the win. Switching defenses seems to pay off in the short term but this team doesn't seem to have the focus for sustained excellence on defense yet.
2) All things considered, this was not a bad Big East debut considering that 5 of the 7 players who saw action had never played a conference game before and one player (Onuaku) hadn't played a Big East game since 2006.
3) This is a young team and they have a lot to learn about shot selection, game management, and consistent defensive effort. At this point the team is still giving up too many possessions by taking long jumpers after one (or sometimes even ZERO) passes. Jonny Flynn still needs to take a bit more of the playmaking into his hands to keep teammates from getting a little too trigger happy. Eliminating the empty trips will help the team become even more efficient on offense. It's hard to complain about 47% shooting from the field, but the potential is there for this team to be even better in this regard.
4) It's easy to complain about 54.8% free throw shooting. This year's team gets to the line with regularity, having made more freebies than the opponents have taken. That is the type of stat that indicates great success, but if this team continues to struggle at the line, it will eventually come back to haunt them. Even usually reliable shooters like Donte Greene (2 of 5) and Jonny Flynn (missed 2 FT with under a minute left) had problems tonight.
5) Paul Harris finds himself the elder statesmen of this crew. His floor game has been much better of late, as his assist numbers have gone up and his turnovers haven't been as costly. Tonight was a tough game for him as he often found himself in positions where he had to battle both Mason Jr and Burrell for defensive boards. When Harris struggles on the boards (only 4 rebounds), the team as a whole struggles. The Red Storm managed a 42-36 rebound margin.
6) St. Johns basically has NOTHING in the way of perimeter talent. Eugene Lawrence exhibited his annual masonry exhibition (0-5 from 3) and the team shot 5 of 23 from beyond the arc overall. It was a nice sight to see the opposition struggle from the perimeter after so many of SU's early opponents had big games shooting the three.
7) 11-3 overall and 1-0 in Big East is probably about as good as one could hope given the circumstances of this season. Depths will eventually end up being an issue and freshmen traditionally run into rough spots as the conference season wears on, so the next few games are very important. If the Orange can take care of South Florida and Cincinnati, they could go into the game against West Virginia with a 13-3 record. There is no doubt that this team has a great deal of talent, but inexperience and tired legs can lead to unexpected losses in the Big East.
8) Perimeter shooting is going to be a big issues going forward. Donte is capable of carrying the team, but he's equally capable of shooting the team right out of a game. Andy Rautins would have been a perfect complement to the current 7 man rotation.
9) It's an inexperienced team, but I'll take talent over experience in this day and age of college hoops. Last year's team had experience but was not talented enough to make a major impact on the season. This year's team has the talent to make things happen.
10) With 23 points, Onuaku became the first SU center since Etan Thomas to break the 20 point barrier.