Maui Will Be a Major Litmus Test for Syracuse

By Jeff Kelly
Mark Konezny – USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to call a top-10 team that’s managed to stay undefeated through the early season a disappointment, but for fans of the Syracuse Orange, that’s exactly what the team has proven to be through the first four games of the year.

Part of that is due to the fact that the team features a lot of inexperience, most notably at the guard position, and is clearly encountering some growing pains. Thanks to those early-season struggles by the young Syracuse players, it’s been hard to get a clear indication of just how good, or even what kind of team they really are.

Fortunately, a trip to the Maui Invitational this week should give everyone — fans, pundits, and the team itself — a much better indication of what they can become.

This early-season test starts today as the Orange take on Minnesota. The Golden Gophers haven’t played a particularly tough schedule, but have nonetheless looked impressive in starting out 5-0. There’s a pretty solid chance that their first-year head coach might have a pretty solid idea of how to combat the vaunted 2-3 zone of Jim Boeheim‘s club.

That’s because Minnesota is coached by Richard Pitino, whose dad has a long history with Boeheim and Syracuse as a competitor year in and year out. But, the history goes back much farther, as Boeheim gave the elder Pitino his first major assistant coaching job in 1976; so if anyone is familiar with Syracuse and Jim Boeheim, it’s the Pitino family.

Syracuse assistant and head coach-in-waiting Mike Hopkins took to Twitter yesterday mentioning that Minnesota plays the same style as Louisville, which will provide a tremendous test for young guards Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney, as well as Michael Gbinije. Ennis entered the season with high expectations but has failed to live up to them thus far, averaging 7.8 points and 3.5 assists.

Even more troubling is that he’s shooting just 29 percent from the field. The good news is that he’s only turned the ball over six times all year while logging better than 28 minutes per game, but the pressure defense from Minnesota will give him his first true test of the year.

Apart from the guard play, this week needs to be a major bounce-back week for star senior forward C.J. Fair. Fair had perhaps the worst game of his career in a narrow win over St. Francis last week, and Boeheim simply cannot afford to have his All-America candidate perform so poorly.

Whether it’s the pressure to carry the team or simply a bad game, Fair was awful in virtually every facet of the game against the Terriers, missing shots he usually makes and compounding his troubles with uncharacteristically dumb decisions with the basketball.

Tomorrow, the Orange will get either California or Arkansas, and a probable third game against either Baylor or Gonzaga. Syracuse fans should be hoping for a date with the Zags, because any chance for Ennis to challenge himself against a talented and experienced backcourt prior to ACC play will do wonders for his development.

Boeheim needs his freshman floor general to be ready for the rigors of the conference grind, and this week will not only provide that, but also shed some light on to whether or not Ennis and the Orange can live up to the preseason hype.

Jeff is an ACC basketball writer on  Follow him on Twitter @jekelish and like him on Facebook.

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