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SU men’s basketball needs to get defensive: Steve Infanti previews the upcoming season

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For the first time since Syracuse decided to join a basketball conference almost 40 years ago, Jim Boeheim and the Orange will enter a season picked to finish 10th in the league standings. 

That is the lowest projected finish in program history. Part of that has to do with how good the ACC is again this season from top to bottom. The other part of it has to do with all of the question marks surrounding SU after losing six scholarship players off of last year’s roster.

 Andrew White, John Gillon, Tyler Roberson, and Dajuan Coleman all ran out of college eligibility. Tyler Lydon left early for the NBA and Taurean Thompson transferred to Seton Hall.

That leaves one returning starter in Tyus Battle and one other player with meaningful experience at Syracuse in Frank Howard.

So, as we look how SU can prove the critics wrong and finish in the upper half of the ACC this season, it starts with those two guys.

Battle Must Be a Beast

The kid is an NBA talent. There is no doubt about that. Battle had a very good freshman season averaging better than 11 points per game.

It could’ve been even better though had he not come down with the flu midway through the season.

Battle had a breakout performance in SU’s 66-62 win over 11th-ranked Virginia. He scored 23 points against the Cavs, then hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer at Clemson three days later, all while starting to deal with the flu.

His production dipped for a few games after that while he tried to fight through being sick. Tyus then closed the year strong by averaging better than 17 points per game over the final month of the season.

He scored in double figures in each of SU’s final seven games. 

Battle was the team’s second best scorer down the stretch behind only Andrew White.

Of course, finding open looks will be much more difficult this year. Tyus will be at the top of every opponent’s scouting report. With the extra attention, comes an extra challenge – just ask Tyler Lydon. 
Last year, Lydon was expected to increase his production going from the fourth or fifth scoring option to the focal point of the offense. However, his reluctance to shoot at times combined with the added attention on defense equated to only a minimal boost in production. 

Lydon’s scoring went up only about three points per game from his freshman to sophomore seasons.

While Battle is certainly in line to draw the opponent’s top defender, I firmly believe we’ll see a significant jump in his numbers. For one thing, SU absolutely needs him to score a lot this season.

He will have the green light and he will have to use it. I also think he’s better equipped to handle the extra defensive attention than Lydon was. That’s not a knock against Tyler. I just see Battle as a more complete player. He can shoot from the outside, has a mid-range game, and is explosive on his way to the basket.

Lydon had much more difficulty creating his own shot. The Orange very much needs a big year out of Tyus Battle. I’m confident that the sophomore star will deliver.

Howard Gets the Point

Not to oversimplify or to put too much pressure on one guy, but Frank Howard might be the biggest key to the season. 

You kind of know what to expect with Tyus Battle. The same cannot be said of Frank Howard. After being used sparingly as a freshman, Howard opened his sophomore season as the starting point guard.

He played well early on but struggled against better competition. The stats reflect that statement. On the season, Howard had an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than two-to-one.

In losses, however, Frank recorded a combined 33 assists to 28 turnovers. That ratio is not going to cut it for your starting point guard. As a result, he was eventually replaced by John Gillon in the starting lineup and seemed to lack confidence the rest of the way.

In Frank’s defense, it was revealed in the offseason that he was injured much of last year. He had to undergo surgery for a sports hernia in May and missed much of the summer recovering. 

Howard is presumably healthy now and is once again in the starting lineup. While Geno Thorpe and Howard Washington both possess the ability to run the point, SU needs Frank to be a steady force at that position and run the team this year. 

Prior to Thorpe joining the program as a grad transfer from South Florida, Howard was the oldest scholarship player on the roster. He’s still the most experienced player in a Syracuse uniform.

 The coaches hope his experience and leadership will be a calming influence on the younger players – especially early in the season. 

To borrow a phrase from Dino Babers, the Orange needs Frank Howard to be consistently good moving forward, not occasionally great.

Get Defensive

The biggest reason for SU’s failure to make the NCAA Tournament last year was its defense. 

The Orange gave up more than 75 points per game last season during league play. In the last two years, only two other Syracuse squads gave up on average more than 70 points per game throughout the year – it happened in back-to-back campaigns, 2007-2008 and 2008-2009. 

Not surprisingly, the Orange went to the NIT that first year and had a combined 24 losses during that stretch.

This year’s group already looks better on that end of the floor. Keep in mind though, this team might also struggle a little bit more in its half-court offense – at least initially. 

One thing last year’s roster had was guys who could score, especially from three-point range.

The Orange made a total of 300 threes which ranks second-most in program history. Outside shooting does not appear to be a strength of this year’s team. 

That means this group may have to rely on its defense to stay in games and to jumpstart its offense on occasion.

There are obviously plenty of other pieces to the puzzle when trying to predict success with this team. How much of an impact will the freshman be able to make? What is a realistic level of production to expect out of the center position? What kind of spark will Geno Thorpe be able to supply off the bench? The list goes on and on. 

But if the Orange can get consistent, quality play out of its starting backcourt plus develop into a very good defensive team, then Syracuse might be able to surprise some people this season.

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