Perfect no more, Syracuse still a threat to go deep into March
Threes gave Cincinnati an early lead before the Bearcats cooled off vs. the zone
Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph rallied 'Cuse in the second half
Coach Mick Cronin bemoaned a Cincy defense that allowed 36 points in the paint
|No. 3 Syracuse||Cincinnati|
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Jim Boeheim isn't much for watching video after his team loses. He has said he can't recall replaying the 1987 national championship game, aka The Keith Smart Game, in which Smart's shot with three seconds to play clinched Indiana's 74-73 win over the Orange.
Boeheim watched Saturday's loss at Notre Dame, though. "I watched the tape twice because I couldn't believe what I was watching,'' Boeheim said Monday night. "I don't think I've ever had a game where not one guy did anything. We play a lot of guys. Every guy played badly. We played a horrible basketball game.''
Boeheim might cue up Monday's win at Cincinnati, if he needs to remind his team what playing with purpose can mean. The Orange, busted from the nation's top-ranked team down to No. 3 earlier Monday, escaped upstart Cincinnati with a 60-53 win. They remain the best team in the Big East, whatever that means.
It hasn't been a great winter for the conference's pedigrees. Pitt really is 0-7 in the league; Villanova actually is 3-5. Falling stars have allowed the likes of Cincinnati to ascend. The Bearcats had won 10 of 12, including road Ws at UConn and Georgetown. They were hungry for the national notice Syracuse has come to expect. A nationally televised, Monday night win just might do the trick.
Instead, Syracuse victimized the Bearcats in very 'Cuse-like fashion. The omnipresent 2-3 zone got in the 'Cats' collective head. And even without 7-foot center Fab Melo, back in Syracuse with academic ills for the second consecutive game, the Orange showed why they're still a nice bet to go deep in March. They have two seniors and a junior with lots of skins on the wall. Guards Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche, and forward Kris Joseph, know what to do when the games are on the edge.
"Those are three key guys for us,'' Boeheim said. "That's who you gotta go with in those situations.''
Cincinnati led 41-38 with 11:48 to play. The Bearcats must have gotten a crash course in remedial zone busting at halftime, because they started the second half by knifing through the 2-3. Forward Yancy Gates had four baskets in the first five minutes, all in the paint.
That's when experience took control. Jardine drained a three from the right wing to put Syracuse back ahead, 43-42. Triche followed with a trey of his own, Joseph turned a UC turnover into an easy dunk in transition, then added a layup. Jardine then blew past Cincinnati's Cashmere Wright for another layup. Syracuse led 54-46, with 3:54 left.
During the decisive 16-5 burst, Jardine had seven points, Triche five and Joseph four.
"A tremendous job during that one stretch of executing on offense,'' declared Boeheim. He called the win "as good a regular-season bounce-back win as I can remember at Syracuse.''
Cincy coach Mick Cronin was not nearly as impressed. After the brawl with Xavier last month left Cincinnati without its two best post players, Cronin turned his team into a freewheeling, four-guard assemblage of mad bombers. The Bearcats play the run and shoot and shoot more. Before Monday night, they'd tried 19 more threes than any team in the Big East, while converting a respectable 37 percent.
It has worked well most of the time. But winning consistently while relying on three-pointers is like winning in the NFL with a team that can pass but can't rush the passer. You're fire-walking lots of the time.
The Bearcats started the game mad-bombing. Wright hit three NBA-length threes in the first four minutes. Cincinnati opened a 15-6 lead.
"It's funny about zone defenses,'' Boeheim noted. "When a man-to-man coach is coaching and they make three or four straight, he says, 'We have to play better defense.' The other day, my wife asked me, 'Can't you play man-to-man?' I even get it at home.''
Boeheim didn't, switch it up, of course, and eventually Cincy stopped making threes. In fact, Cronin suggested the drop-off in three accuracy contributed to his team's woeful defense late in the game.
"When you play Syracuse, you have to keep your minds off offense,'' he said. "You stay focused on defense. That's how you beat them. Our defense was atrocious. They shot layups. I don't care if we're playing Syracuse or St. Anne. Guys shoot layups, they're going to make them.''
Someone asked Cronin why he removed Wright from the game with four minutes to play. "I was searching for someone who could stay between their man and the basket,'' he answered. "Giving up layups because your head is somewhere else is inexcusable. They had 36 points in the paint.''
And so it goes in the Big East. The Orange don't know for certain when Melo will return. Until he does, teams are likely to take liberties close to the basket, the way Cincinnati's Gates did in the second half Monday. For Syracuse, Fab-less isn't fabulous. But as Monday showed, it doesn't have to be disastrous, either. There is nothing in college basketball better than experienced guards, and Syracuse has that fact covered.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, remains on the cusp, not quite Big East royalty, but not quite an outsider, either. The Bearcats have risen from the ashes in the last month. They have their noses pressed against the big-time window.
Syracuse is there already. "To play the way we played tonight was big,'' Boeheim said. Big enough, perhaps, to watch a second time.
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