Orange begins ACC play with momentum... and lingering questions

Without a signature win to its credit, SU is hoping for a strong push during conference play to bolster its tournament chances.

Since the Orange’s opening victory against Kennesaw State on Nov. 14, Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim has repeatedly said his team has the potential and talent to win any game. All it needed was time, both for key underclassmen to find an offensive flow and the team’s confidence to return to a level not seen since last season’s 25-game winning streak. 

“I think our chemistry is better and we’re starting to develop consistency on the offensive end. As long as we continue to do all that, we’ll be ready for the ACC.”
— Michael Gbinije

But as the Orange’s second slate of Atlantic Coast Conference games began Saturday at Virginia Tech, that time officially ran out. 

After losing three of four contests to open December, including an overtime heartbreaker against Villanova, SU (10-4) has rebounded with four consecutive victories to stop the bleeding. However, many of the problems that plagued the Orange earlier in the season have continued to surface. 

With key resume-building games against Duke, North Carolina and Virginia still to come in ACC play, Orange Nation is still unsure of what to expect in the season’s second half. 

“We’re taking the right steps right now, and that’s when you want to take the right steps,” Trevor Cooney said. “You want to play well now and you want to keep continuing that into our next game and into conference play.” 

But for every improvement the Orange has made in recent weeks, including its shooting from beyond the arc, a number of unsettling trends are continuing to haunt the team. 

The most obvious is an inability to close out games. Against Villanova, a five-point deficit evaporated in the closing seconds of regulation time en route to a loss. One week prior, Louisiana Tech was able to erase a 10-point lead in the final four minutes before Rakeem Christmas saved the Orange with a late floater. 

But the worst example came on Saturday, as Syracuse nearly squandered a huge 19-point halftime lead and barely edged the Hokies. 

While SU’s long range shooting, specifically that of Cooney, has spiked upward, a big reason for those late collapses has been its foul shooting

Chris McCullough has taken 65 shots at the charity stripe, second-most of any SU starter. However, he has only made 57 percent of them. Michael Gbinije has been even worse, converting fewer than half of his 29 attempts. 

As a team, SU is shooting only 65.9 percent to rank in a tie for 247th in the country. 

“Mike (Gbinije) and Ronnie (Patterson) are really good free-throw shooters,” Boeheim said following the Virginia Tech game. “Hopefully, we’ll make those free throws next time and make it a little easier. 

“We’re in college here… close isn’t helpful here.” 

The Orange simply has not generated enough bench scoring to wear down opponents. It has heavily relied on Christmas and Cooney, who have done a fairly admirable job of producing on a nightly basis. 

Boeheim has said he isn’t concerned about where the points come from, but if Tyler Roberson, B.J. Johnson or Ron Patterson can finally grasp the flow of the offense, it will be a huge advantage in tight games against deep ACC opponents. 

“We’ve been able to play Roberson a lot now,” Boeheim said. “Ron has gotten some time, so we have some guys that have gotten in and played, not always well, but they’ve been in there. Hopefully, that’ll help us as we move forward here.” 

Luckily, the news is not all bad for the Orange. 

Freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph is taking better care of the ball, even though his scoring average is slowly dropping. 

Gbinije has been a valuable two-way player since his promotion to the starting lineup and is on the verge of taking the team lead in steals. 

Not to mention, SU’s early conference schedule is very favorable. It will face only one opponent (Clemson) with a winning ACC record in 2014 over the next six games. 

That stretch will be the true indicator of whether the Orange is a contender or pretender. So for now, all fans can do is hope the growth spurts keep coming. 

Otherwise, it could be a long winter in the Salt City. 

“It’s us just playing with each other, getting used to each other more,” Gbinije said. “I think our chemistry is better and we’re starting to develop consistency on the offensive end. As long as we continue to do all that, we’ll be ready for the ACC.”

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