Gelb: Syracuse weathers Winter Break storm
No one ever said it would be easy.
Since students left for winter break, it’s been one wild month for Syracuse. Sure, the Orange went 6-2, but this isn’t the same Syracuse from the beginning of December.
Eric Devendorf isn’t starting. Mike Jones is gone. Darryl Watkins, Terrence Roberts and Matt Gorman have all missed time to injuries. Paul Harris has not met the lofty expectations with which he came to Syracuse. Demetris Nichols has struggled as the focus of all opponents’ defensive gameplans.
SU dropped a home game to Drexel (who, by the way, is the best college team in Philly this season, if that’s any consolation) and played down to its opponents, highlighted by a lackluster 12-point victory over St. Bonaventure (current RPI: 309). Then, with six healthy regulars, the Orange lost its Big East opener to Pittsburgh.
But, through all of the drama, highs and lows of the past month, the Orange has an identity – and Jim Boeheim couldn’t have asked for more.
Thanks to perseverance, it survived a rigorous four weeks riddled with personal and team adversity. And that will give a team like this bunch some much-needed swagger, which Terrence Roberts said SU got back after Saturday’s 75-64 win over Villanova.
‘I think it’s a culmination of a rough start to the beginning of the season,’ Roberts said. ‘We didn’t have a game where we really played our best yet. And I think this is probably our best game collectively as a team.’
It was perseverance, like Devendorf’s, that got them to 14-4 and 3-1 in the Big East.
The team’s second-leading scorer isn’t starting, but he’s getting starter’s minutes. Admittedly, Devendorf battled off-the-court personal problems during December and it threw him off his game.
But Devendorf reemerged at the perfect time for the Orange, as a spark off the bench, nonetheless. He scored 20 points in SU’s 70-58 win at then-No. 15 Marquette – perhaps the turning point in the Orange’s season. Through SU’s first three Big East games, Devendorf was the team’s leading scorer despite not starting. He scored only four points on Saturday, but dished out seven assists.
‘It’s some stuff we all have to deal with,’ Devendorf said of the trials and tribulations the past month has posed. ‘People are going to go through their ups and downs, and you’ll get through it. I think it makes you stronger as a person and a team.’
Andy Rautins has taken Devendorf’s place as a starter. Boeheim likes Rautins’ ability to stretch opponents’ defenses because of his 3-point shooting ability. But Boeheim has to love the way Devendorf has adapted to his new role even more, both on the court and off.
Syracuse played the beginning of its Big East schedule with seven healthy regulars. Matt Gorman severely sprained his ankle in practice on Jan. 3 and hasn’t played since.
Mike Jones left; transferred to South Carolina because he didn’t play enough. Friends and family never wanted the S.C. native and three-time state player of the year to leave home – and he wasn’t gone for long.
Jones departed one day before Syracuse’s Big East opener vs. Pittsburgh, leaving the Orange with only seven healthy scholarship players to take on the No. 4 Panthers – six if you don’t count Devin Brennan-McBride, who’s been getting walk-on like minutes. Roberts had sat out the previous two games with a left knee injury and didn’t expect to play the entire game against Pitt.
The Orange lost by eight to Pitt, now ranked No. 6, but has convincingly won three straight Big East games with effectively the same limited personnel. Watkins has been the horse, averaging 35 minutes up front, along with nearly a double-double per game in the Big East.
‘Just going through the stuff we went through, I think we’re ten times better,’ Devendorf said.
Ten times might be just enough, especially if the effort is much like Saturday’s convincing victory. Besides Pitt at the top, the Big East has no clear order. Georgetown is an inconsistent 11-5; Marquette, Connecticut, Louisville and Villanova are all down from last season. Notre Dame, Providence and West Virginia are conference surprises, but the claim for No. 2 in the Big East is up for grabs and Syracuse has just as good a chance, if not better, than anyone to capture it.
This can be said even without major contributions from Harris, who is averaging only 17 minutes a game in the Big East, and with Roberts playing only a couple of quality performances, Saturday being the finest.
Hard to imagine all this one month ago, on Dec. 19, when the Orange lost by five to Drexel.
‘We’re coming together as a team,’ Devendorf said. ‘I think we took a step a forward (Saturday) and we’re going to continue to do that.’
Easier said than done, right?
Matt Gelb is an asst. sports editor for The Daily Orange, where his columns appear occasionally. E-mail him at email@example.com.
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