SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team has begun its 2017-2018 season with a perfect 5-0 record, winning each contest by an average of more than 17 points.
The start may have surprised some observers when pre-season expectations were so low for this edition of the Orange (the media picked the team to finish 10th in the ACC this season). But others are waiting for Syracuse to face a higher quality team — it hasn’t played a top-100 team in the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings yet — before buying into the idea that this Cuse team is significantly better than last season’s disappointing 19-15 squad.
That being said, here are four things I think we have learned about the 2017-2018 Syracuse Orange.
This Syracuse team looks to have a significantly improved defense. “I think our defense has been good,” head coach Jim Boeheim has said on more than one occasion in this young season The Orange have two centers (junior Paschal Chukwu and freshman Bourama Sidibe) this year protecting the middle of its vaunted 2-3 zone and the back of its occasional full-court press defense. Last season, the team played without a true center for much of the season. “Last year ... we didn’t have a big guy. We had to force Tyler Lydon to play in the middle. The big guys make a big difference in there, not just their rebounding, their presence, blocking shots,” Boeheim said after the win over Toledo on Nov. 22.
Syracuse also has more size at the top of its zone defense this year. “We’re bigger at the guard spot. We’re moving up on the shooters better that we did last year. Last year was one of the worst three-point defensive teams we’ve ever had,” the head coach said following the win over Oakland on Nov. 20.
So far, the Orange are generating nearly nine steals and eight blocks per game. Last season, Syracuse produced seven steals and just two blocks a game in the first five contests, before finishing with more than six steals and 2.5 blocks per game for the full season.
The Orange have also improved their rebounding. “We’re rebounding the ball better,” Boeheim said. This Syracuse team is corralling almost 53 rebounds a game and outrebounding opponents by almost 16 boards per contest through five games. Last year, the Orange outrebounded their opponents by almost nine boards per contest in the first five games, but ended up getting outrebound by one board a game during the entire 34-game season.
Syracuse has established an early identity. The team is going to try to win games with that strong defense and rebounding while depending on sophomore star Tyus Battle, with significant help from junior Frank Howard and freshman Oshae Brissett to generate enough offense. It’s a good sign that the Cuse played well in the final 11 minutes of the Toledo game without Battle after he was injured in a hard fall to the court. “I thought when Tyus (Battle) went out Frank (Howard) took the game over. He immediately made a couple of big shots right away and got us a cushion,” Boeheim said. Syracuse also played well in the Texas Southern contest when Battle sat with first half foul trouble.
The Orange are a work in progress. With only one player (Battle) that was a major contributor on last year’s squad, Syracuse is depending on a lot of players who are either young or need to prove themselves. “We have a lot to learn and that is to be expected,” Boeheim said after the Toledo game.
Syracuse hasn’t yet played a single team from a power-6 conference (ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, PAC 12, and SEC). We’ll find out much more about the 2017-2018 Orange starting Monday night, Nov. 27, versus Maryland. And still more in games against Kansas, Connecticut, and Georgetown.
Though the early signs are good, Syracuse still has a lot of improving to do if it wants to continue its success when the competition gets more difficult. “We have a lot of work to do,” the head coach said after the win over Iona on Nov. 14. Indeed.
Contact Rombel at firstname.lastname@example.org