Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said before the season his team would be good defensively and struggle at the other end. That assessment was spot-on.
With the start of Atlantic Coast Conference play Sunday night with a home game against Virginia Tech, the Orange (11-2) are putting up solid numbers on defense. Syracuse ranks ninth nationally in blocks with 83 (behind only Louisville's 101 in the ACC), seventh in rebounding margin (plus-10.5), seventh in offensive rebounds (14.77), ninth in total rebounds (42.08) and first in the ACC in steals per game (8.9).
"Our defense has been good. It has been good all year for the most part," Boeheim said. "There are always some breakdowns, but overall our defense has been pretty good. We just have to ... get something going on the offensive end."
After its win over Eastern Michigan on Wednesday night, Syracuse was tied for 242nd nationally in scoring at 72 points a game, just ahead of Virginia (71.2). The Orange also are hitting just 30 percent behind the arc.
That leaves little margin for error when their top scorer struggles. Guard Tyus Battle is averaging 20.1 points, third in the ACC, but he's sputtered at times and his teammates failed to pick up the slack in Syracuse's three-point overtime loss at home to St. Bonaventure last week.
Against the Bonnies, Battle shot 3 for 18 and made just 1 of 9 shots from behind the arc. Against Eastern Michigan he couldn't find his range in the first half, missing all five 3-pointers. The teams went into halftime tied before the Orange rallied behind Battle for a 62-47 win — he hit 6 of 9 from the floor, 3 of 4 from long range, in the second half.
"We've lost before," freshman forward Oshae Brissett said. "Against good teams, we just know what we need to do — learn from our mistakes."
Brissett has been a pleasant surprise, averaging a double-double (15.2 points, 10 rebounds), freshman forward Marek Dolezaj has been a sparkplug with his hustle, and junior point guard Frank Howard has been a catalyst, also averaging 15.2 points. Howard's 53 turnovers, though, have negated some of the positives he brings to the floor — he leads the ACC with 30 steals.
The Orange have one problem that won't go away — a thin bench. The departure of graduate transfer Geno Thorpe has left the team with only eight scholarship players, and injuries to 6-foot-10 freshman center Bourama Sidibe have forced him to miss three games and parts of three others since an early-season loss to then-No. 2 Kansas. Boeheim hinted a medical redshirt might be an option if Sidibe doesn't show signs of recovering. "We are not going to play him unless we feel that he can play," Boeheim said.
Since joining the ACC, Syracuse has won four of five against Virginia Tech (11-2), though the Hokies won the previous meeting between the teams last season. Syracuse travels to Wake Forest on Wednesday and is back home to face Notre Dame next Saturday.
"We have had a lot of tough games and I think we will survive it," Boeheim said. "We have to try to get through it and try to get better. The team has shown a lot of determination, a lot of grit, and they keep battling out there."
The Orange on Sunday will wear a uniform patch honoring Kelly Seubert, Boeheim's former administrative assistant. Seubert, who played an intricate role in most of the operational duties in the basketball office, died in August of cancer after 13 years on staff. The patch will remain on the uniforms for the rest of the season. Boeheim and his staff will wear commemorative pins resembling the patch.