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Simply put, Syracuse needs to improve offensively

November 22, 2014 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments
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NEW YORK – Jim Boeheim’s responses to questions are almost legendary. He had one on Friday that basically said it all about his team, despite few words.

“Very little,” was what Boeheim said when asked how much offensive progress he saw from his team over the two days in New York at the 2K Classic. Asked a short time after that where he thinks the offense needs to improve, he then added, “I don’t think we have time.”

Syracuse had a very good stretch in the second half of Friday’s 66-63 win over Iowa, but they also had to hang on for dear life at the end because they came back to earth with turnovers. Offensive struggles with this team are to be expected, so progress at that end will be important given that they can still hang their hat on their defense. Boeheim reiterated more than once that this team has a lot of work to do on that end before ACC play.

With so much production gone from last season’s team, there was an open question about where the offense would come from. Syracuse teams in recent years have hardly resembled offensive powerhouses, and now a bigger challenge seems to be ahead. Could Trevor Cooney go from complementary shooter to go-to guy? Could Kaleb Joseph give them some scoring out of the gate while (more importantly) running the team? Would someone else among their talent emerge as a big scorer?

Well, the answers to the first two questions are still to come, but we’ve already seen something on the third. Someone has quickly emerged at the offensive end, and it’s an unlikely one.

Rakeem Christmas has never been known as much of an offensive player. Even in high school that was the case; he was as much a defensive presence as anything. It helped that for his first three years at Syracuse, there were better scorers, so the Orange didn’t need much offense out of him. Now, however, he has quickly emerged as a scorer, getting many touches and now capitalizing. After scoring 18 points on 7-11 shooting on Friday, he is averaging 15.5 points per game and shooting over 52 percent from the field.

Count his point guard among those not surprised by this.

“In practice every day, he attacks and he’s been scoring a lot,” said Joseph. “I’m not surprised at all. He’s one of the best big men in the country, and we need him to continue to be aggressive.”

Getting points off of defense is one option, and on Friday the Orange did that in the first half with 12 points off 11 Iowa turnovers, while they gave the ball away just four times. The Orange ended up shooting 41.7 percent, while Iowa was at 40 percent and had 18 turnovers.

For his part, Joseph is growing into the college game and showed a nice bit of that on Friday. Though he was 3-10 from the field, he had eight assists and four turnovers, and made several key plays late, often with passes. There’s a lot of pressure on him with the early departure of the steady Tyler Ennis, and he’ll have to keep growing in effectiveness. Whereas he’s used to having to score, he has more offensive talent around him now, so he has to find the balance between being a scoring threat and making teammates better, which will come with experience as he feels them out.

Boeheim noted that just about everyone on this team is in a new position this year. That means there will be some growing pains, especially in non-conference play, and that could come in some of their bigger games like the two in New York, at Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge or at Villanova in December.

Syracuse avoided going 0-2 in New York, which has been unthinkable over the years. Boeheim didn’t have a whole lot to say about his team’s offense, but in doing so, he said plenty. This team will be a work in progress at that end for a while, and how they develop there will have a big say in how far this team goes.

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