Despite a preseason ranking of No. 16, Syracuse struggled during nonconference play. The Orange lost two straight at Madison Square Garden and two straight at home, a first since the Carrier Dome opened in 1980.
But that part of the schedule is over, and it ended on a good note.
Syracuse defeated upstate neighbor St. Bonaventure 81-47 last Saturday in a final tuneup before its Atlantic Coast Conference opener Saturday at Notre Dame.
The Orange (9-4) displayed clutch shooting (29 of 50), a swarming defense that nabbed 17 steals and forced 25 turnovers and scored 17 points in transition. There was also a good showing from the bench (25 points) against the Bonnies.
“We pushed it in transition. That’s how we have to play,” said junior guard Tyus Battle, who had 21 points on 8-for-8 shooting and a career-high six steals. He has scored 20 or more points seven times and leads the team with an average of 18.
The victory came with senior point guard Frank Howard still on a slow climb back from a preseason injury to his lower left leg. He missed the first four games of the season.
Now comes the 18-game tour through the ACC, which has six teams in the AP Top 25, including four in the top 10.
“We feel great,” Orange sophomore forward Oshae Brissett said. “Something that I want to emphasize to the new guys is that no game is going to be easy now. It doesn’t matter who we play. It doesn’t matter what their schedule is. Any team can beat you.”
Notre Dame (10-4), which lost its conference opener 81-66 at No. 10 Virginia Tech on New Year’s Day, defeated Syracuse 51-49 a year ago without injured senior captains Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell. The Irish won that game on Rex Pflueger’s hustling layup with 2.6 seconds left as he took advantage of a defensive lapse by the Orange.
Syracuse won’t have to worry about Pflueger this time — the senior captain is out for the year with a knee injury.
Still, these Orange, with all five starters from last year’s NCAA Tournament team back, so far have mirrored that team, which didn’t find its stride until March. Syracuse was the last squad selected for the NCAAs and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen with low-scoring victories over Arizona State, TCU and Michigan State before falling to ACC rival Duke by four points.
That Syracuse team averaged 72 points, shot 42.8 percent and 30 percent from beyond the arc. It averaged 12.6 assists and 8.9 steals, made 69.3 percent of its free throws and had a field-goal percentage defense of .384.
This year’s team is averaging 71.6 points, shooting 43 percent overall and 29.9 percent from 3, averages 12.5 assists and 8.8 steals, has converted 69.5 percent of its free throws, and has a field-goal percentage defense of .385.
Which means there’s plenty of room for improvement. A week off between games to practice for Saturday’s matchup was timely. It’s the last extended period this season.
“We had good practices (before St. Bonaventure), which helps,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “I think the practices this week will help us.”
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