Not many people would call it pretty, but a win is a win for the Syracuse Orange as they topped their first BCS opponent of the season with a 75-67 victory over Minnesota in the opening round of the Maui Invitational. It was a slugfest, literally, at some points as CJ Fair wound up with a gushing wound under his right eye. In the end, the talent of the Orange proved too much.
Minnesota gave Syracuse all it could handle thanks to its pressure defense and some outstanding perimeter shooting, but Syracuse exploited the Minnesota interior every time Elliott Eliason went to the bench and that was a big key to the Orange victory. DaJuan Coleman had a strong showing, though it was a bit baffling to see him sit for most of the second half after having his way with Minnesota through the first two thirds of the game, scoring nine points on 3-of-5 shooting and grabbing five boards with two blocks.
Still, Syracuse fans have come to expect that Jim Boeheim is going to play favorites, and this season’s favorite at center is Baye Keita. Despite his poor play tonight, Keita got the bulk of the second-half minutes at center, with Coleman inexplicably sitting on the bench. At the end of the day, it still did not matter, as Fair took over beginning with a vicious dunk in toward the end of the second half, the same play that opened up the gash that would bleed for the duration but would not slow the senior down.
Fair was shaky early on, continuing what was starting to look like a disturbing trend following a horrible performance against St. Francis (NY), but the tomahawk jam seemed to ignite the forward from Baltimore, and when things got tight in the second half he came up with big shot after big shot to carry Syracuse to the win. Fair finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
Heading into the game, one of the keys to watch was how the young, inexperienced Syracuse guards would handle the Minnesota defense.
The answer? Extremely well. Tyler Ennis had a poor shooting night but was nearly flawless with the basketball, turning the ball over just once and breaking the press with ease while also getting into the lane at will. Ennis was clutch at the free throw line, hitting 10-of-11 on his way to 12 points, and he added five assists and five steals.
Trevor Cooney was a major factor in the first half but faded into the background in the second, hitting five three-pointers to finish with 15 points in the game. Cooney was a big part of the reason Syracuse was able to grab and maintain a lead in the first half, and he played solid defense against the Gophers as well. Michael Gbinije, in his first year playing the point guard position, also handled the full court pressure exceptionally well. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find an instance when Syracuse was even remotely flustered by the press. Between Ennis, Cooney and Gbinije, with a little help from Fair, they broke the press with relative ease, repeatedly.
At the end of the day, a win over this Minnesota team may not look overly impressive on Syracuse’s resume when March rolls around, but considering it was the first true test for the team’s young guards and allowed them to advance to take on California tomorrow, it was a solid step for a very young squad that’s still trying to find out exactly what kind of team it can be.