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Cooney follows familiar path for Syracuse

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Watching Trevor Cooney, it’s hard not to think of a certain other Irishman in Orange. Elementary schoolers sang odes on Gerry McNamara’s last game at Syracuse while fans openly wept, so Cooney has a few miles to go before he matches his assistant coach in Syracuse lore.

A few more nights like Tuesday, though, and the fans back in his Delaware hometown might want to start reserving the Greyhounds for his last night at the Dome just like the folks in Scranton did for McNamara.

It wasn’t just the five made 3-pointers. They were nice, especially the big one he hit early in the second half to start what would be a methodical march to an easy 69-52 victory against Indiana in the Orange’s first Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

No, like McNamara, what endears Cooney to the crowd is how he plays. He looks more like the kid you’d pick last for dodgeball. Aside from the coaching staff, no one on the Syracuse bench has less hair on their heads than Cooney. He’s sort of pasty and scruffy and, in an interview, is polite and unassuming, with not even a hint of bravado.

Looks, they truly are deceiving, because Cooney flat out can play. He is not some arc-camping diva but rather a gritty baller who swiped four steals to go with his 21 points and wrote the first part of what might be his McNamara-esque epic with 9:19 left in the game.

Syracuse led by a comfortable 17 points when Cooney swiped the ball from Jeremy Hollowell. He barreled toward the basket for a layup but was hit hard from behind by Austin Etherington. Cooney crashed into the stanchion, while the Dome fans went bananas.

While the officials went to review the play -- they’d eventually assess Etherington with a flagrant-2 and eject him -- an initially woozy Cooney huddled up his teammates while the students chanted, "Tre-vor Coo-ney."

"That's my little brother," McNamara said. "He's worked so hard, and done so much, it's impossible not to root for him. I've never seen anyone work as hard as he did. I knew when his time came, he’d be a success."

The time didn’t come right away for Cooney, as so often is the case here. Immediate gratification is rare at Syracuse, where coach Jim Boeheim still prefers the old-fashioned method of teaching and growing players into their roles.

That was Cooney, who redshirted his freshman season. Instead of looking at it as a year off, though, he made it a year on. Full on. His workouts were “grueling,” McNamara said, complete with before-practice Dome stair runs, endless hours in the weight room and even more in the gym. Cooney said it was easy because he wasn’t playing, but even McNamara, no slacker himself, was awed.

Even after that redshirt season, Cooney waited some more. Last season, Cooney came off the bench behind an all-star roster that included Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche. He averaged just 11.2 minutes a game and when he did get his chance, his shots didn’t always go in. Cooney shot only 26 percent from the arc.

"Coming in here, I knew it would be a process," Cooney said. "I decided to treat it like a journey. I just knew if I kept working, one day it would come."

And now finally, this season, the day has come. He’s shooting 26-of-55 from the arc (47.2 percent), and he and teammate Tyler Ennis are playing as well as any backcourt in the country, making the transition from Carter-Williams and Triche much more seamless than anyone could imagine.

But that’s always the way it is for Boeheim. If there is a better coach at fitting the square pegs into his square holes, I’m not sure who it is. Boeheim doesn’t just find the best players; he finds the best players that fit his needs. His is not so much a system as it is a well-oiled machine.

It’s why year after year, player after player, Syracuse is still good. Look at this team and you can see the parts working together: the shooter (Cooney), the savvy point guard (Tyler Ennis), the scorer (C.J. Fair), the bigs who won’t kill you but will do what they need to do (DaJuan Coleman, Baye Keita and Rakeem Christmas). Mix in the confounding zone and it all makes sense.

"We all know this system," McNamara said. "We know how to find the fillers and the guys that we need. We know every play. We know the zone. We know exactly who fits."

It's dangerous, of course, to make any grand presumptions about a team in December. In Indiana’s case, it would be downright unfair. The Hoosiers are incredibly young and it’s an awful lot to ask a team full of freshmen to come into an atmosphere like this one -- 26,414 on a random Tuesday night in December -- against a defense like that one and play well.

Could they have played better? Yes. Syracuse’s zone is now officially Indiana’s kryptonite. The Hoosiers looked as puzzled and confused here as they did nine months ago in the Sweet 16, which is a bit surprising. Theoretically, they’ve watched game tape since.

Still, this by no means sends Indiana into the trash heap.

And bold proclamations about Syracuse are equally dangerous but I’m still willing to make one: The Orange are very good, maybe even best team in the ACC good. At the very least, circle the dates of Feb. 1 (Duke at Syracuse) and Feb. 22 (the Orange in Durham) good.

We've gotten this far and haven't even mentioned Fair much. The leading scorer of a year ago is again at the top of the statistics. He's more than capable of taking over a game, but he doesn't have to. The Orange have four players averaging double figures.

Including the guy sitting right behind Fair in the scoring column: Trevor Cooney, Gerry McNamara in training.