DURHAM, N.C. -- Syracuse, a winner of its first 25 games, the No. 1 team in the nation, has in a week dropped back-to-back outings, dropped out of first place in the ACC and, in the process, dropped its close-game mystique.
It had to happen at some point, right?
The Orange were undefeated, but they were not dominant. The warning signs were there as early as the fourth game of the season when they trailed St. Francis Brooklyn by four points with four minutes left. They continued with close games against average teams like Miami, Notre Dame and North Carolina State.
"I think everybody realized we had a lot of things to learn," freshman guard Tyler Ennis said. "We weren’t playing our best, but we were still able to pull out wins."
The difference now is that a loss to Boston College in overtime and Saturday’s 66-60 loss at No. 5 Duke come at a time in the season when the best teams are generally trending upward. With road games left at Maryland, Virginia and Florida State, the Orange are trying to shrug off their setbacks.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim noted his team won its first eight games that were decided by two or fewer possessions before losing the past two.
"We flew through, obviously, and escaped a few times," Boeheim said. "We knew the end of the year would be hard, and that’s fine. These games help you. This will help you. This was a tournament game."
Boeheim certainly acted like it when he was so disgusted that he charged on the court after C.J. Fair got called for a charge with 10.4 seconds left in a two-point game. He promptly earned two technical fouls and was tossed from the game.
There’s no panic in Syracuse yet, but redshirt sophomore guard Trevor Cooney knows how quickly things can turn.
"I know the guys who were on the team last year that played and we lost five in a row, so we know that feeling and you don’t want to ever have that feeling again," Cooney said. "So you just got to come ready for the next game. You put this game behind you. You learn from it, but you put it behind you."
Postseason games generally are won by great backcourts, but it’s starting to seem like a season’s worth of minutes could be taking its toll on the Orange’s tandem.
The past five games, Ennis is shooting just 33.9 percent from the floor. Ennis has played at least 40 minutes in six of their 13 conference games -- including 43 minutes in the overtime loss to Boston College -- and averages 35 minutes for the season.
Ennis said he wasn’t fatigued, but he was short on many of his jumpers against the Blue Devils, finishing just 2-for-13 from the floor. It marked his lowest shooting percentage for any game in which he’s had more than 10 attempts.
Over that five-game span, Cooney is shooting 29.2 percent, including his 1-of-5 outing against Duke. Cooney, who averages 32 minutes per game, scored his lowest total in ACC play with four points against the Blue Devils.
"We just got to get some easy points in transition, get Trevor some easy looks because he’s been guarded closely," Fair said. "When he makes 3s, that stretches everything else out for us."
Saturday’s game could be a launching point for sophomore guard Michael Gbinije to get more playing time. The Duke transfer returned to Cameron Indoor and scored eight points in 20 minutes off the bench.
He could bring much-needed relief to an Ennis-Cooney backcourt that has carried most of the backcourt load for the Orange all season.
"Our guards have played so far above anything that I would have ever hoped for. I’m just totally impressed with what they’ve done this year," Boeheim said. "Mike coming in is really a good thing for us moving forward. It was tough for him to come back down here and play. He played his best game of the year."
The good thing for Syracuse is its defense is playing at a high level. What’s hurting the Orange lately is their offense is lagging behind.
The rematch with Duke brought offense back to earth for both teams. The Orange, who shot 57.4 percent from the field in the first meeting, managed to shoot just 38.7 percent on Saturday. They scored half of their points in the paint, but when forced to shoot from outside that area, the Orange struggled.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Orange made just nine of 33 attempts from outside the paint against the Blue Devils. The past three games they are shooting just 20 percent outside the paint. That’s why they made an effort to get to the rim in the second half en route to shooting 51 percent.
"We played to our strengths. We attacked the basket a lot more. I feel like that’s why our percentage was so high [in the second half]," said sophomore forward Jerami Grant, who scored a team-high 17 points.
Grant said back-to-back losses haven’t put any dent in the team’s confidence in close games.
"We have a lot of poise. I definitely think we can bounce back," Grant said. "We have a quick turnaround, which is probably a good thing for us going out to Maryland. I know it’s going to be a tough game, tough environment. We’ll be fine. We just have to go out and play our own game."