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Maui win shows Syracuse's growth

11/28/2013

Nine days ago, you were probably reminded that Syracuse was playing a random home game on a Monday night in November well after the game had started and just before it finished -- and in hurried tones to boot.

Yes, last Monday night, Syracuse was losing -- not just casually trailing by a few points, but in full-on Defcon 1, might-actually-lose-this-game losing -- to Saint Francis at the Carrier Dome.

The whole thing was just kind of gross. The Orange were out of sorts offensively from their most experienced player (C.J. Fair, who scored seven points on 2-of-13 shooting) to their least (freshman guard Tyler Ennis, who posted a 37.0 offensive rating in a metric for which 100.0 is about average). The saving grace was a couple of late turnovers and transition buckets, but any concern Syracuse fans might have had about their team rebuilding a perimeter without Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche and James Southerland seemed justified. Random off night? Early-season flub? Or a shudder-worthy glimpse at the season to come?

After Wednesday night's commanding Maui win over Baylor, let's go ahead and put the latter option to rest.

The Orange's offense might not always be the prettiest in the world, but it is likely to be effective. The defense might not be as sturdy on the perimeter as last season, but it will still force plenty of bad shots -- and even more turnovers.

Ennis might not rank with the biggest freshmen in the game right now, but he has promise dripping out of his ears and is turning it into effective play more frequently with every game. Fair might not be a shoo-in for All-American, but he is beginning to find his footing -- beginning to play like a star.

Syracuse might not be perfect; it's certainly nowhere near the team that ground opponents into 2-3 zone pulp en route to the Final Four last season. But it is still a very talented team with a whole host of strengths, and one that still looks totally capable of winning the ACC in its very first season in the league.

Plenty of those traits were on display Wednesday night. Individually, Fair scored 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting against a long interior defense that had given opponents fits to date. Ennis didn't shoot it particularly well, but he did finish with 11 points and, more importantly, nine assists. And Jerami Grant, Boeheim's ace in the hole, contributed 19 points on 12 shots in crucial minutes off the bench.

Wednesday night was always going to be an uphill battle for Baylor, for reasons mentioned in "On Holiday" on Wednesday afternoon: The one thing Syracuse has done consistently this season is turn people over, and the biggest weakness for an otherwise good Baylor team is its propensity to cough the ball up. So it's no surprise that Baylor turned it over 20 times; that was the key difference in a game in which they made 26 of 47 from the field and 9 of 19 from 3-point range.

Perhaps most impressive, the Orange never looked like anything but eventual, codified winners Wednesday. They jumped out to a 10-2 run early, and while Baylor made its counters -- it knocked down several batches of 3-pointers, and even closed the lead to 68-62 with a few minutes to play -- Syracuse never panicked. The game never felt or sounded like it was in doubt, even when Baylor started making 3s. That's an impossible thing to quantify; it's an almost imperceptible quality. But it feels applicable here.

There is much to be done for Boeheim, no doubt. The Orange, like everyone else, have their warts. But a year after a Final Four appearance, after as deep a roster hit as Boeheim has felt in his recent run of uninterrupted success, Syracuse still has the look.