The hardest challenge for Syracuse on its cross-country trip to San Diego this weekend wasn’t the top-20 opponent or the outdoor conditions complicating the game. It was maneuvering through the miniaturized corridors of the USS Midway.
After lots of straining and ducking just to make it out of the low-lying, makeshift locker room, the Orange stretched back out into the towering presence that treated San Diego State shots like volleyball setup passes. Syracuse sent out a bugle alarm call to the rest of the college basketball world, urging future opponents to think strongly about testing the Orange inside.
On the power of 10 blocked shots, the Orange used above-the-rim acrobatics and a steady dose of C.J. Fair and Brandon Triche to thump San Diego State, 62-49. Sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who totes heavy responsibilities and even weightier expectations this season, added 17 points and a game-changing defensive presence to the SU defense on the perimeter.
While most Top 25 teams opened the season by playing a cupcake—and therefore cannot be evaluated in depth—Syracuse and San Diego State provided enough material in this heavyweight matchup alone to compose a worthwhile first assessment. The initial reports for the Orange are glowing like the sun-splashed court hosting the team’s first game.
Hushing the critics. Syracuse silenced, at least temporarily, its longtime critics who gripe [and justifiably so] about Syracuse’s reluctance to leave the state of New York in the non-conference. SU wasted no time flaunting its squad from afar. Down three starters from last year’s squad and missing the best sixth man in college hoops as well, the Orange traveled 3,000 miles and even agreed to play outdoors for the team’s season opener against a top-20 opponent.
Every starter on Syracuse has improved. Four of Syracuse’s five starters on Sunday were members of last year’s program-best, 34-win team. And all four of those returning players have noticeably improved their games since we last saw them in March. C.J. Fair has added a jump shot to his arsenal that he didn’t have last year while senior guard Brandon Triche now owns a motor he didn’t have in each of his three seasons prior. Rakeem Christmas is more active. He looked the part of a menace on the glass and terrorizing defensive force, even showing off his versatility at both the corner of the zone and in the middle. Michael Carter-Williams was one of college basketball’s best kept secrets last season, hiding behind a steady 3-man guard rotation at Cuse that featured top-three NBA draft pick Dion Waiters and then-senior point guard Scoop Jardine. One year later, Williams is already flashing what Jim Boeheim was playing close to the vest: a gnat defensively, who, while out of control offensively in his starting debut, should be an explosive offensive playmaker with his ability to score and dish.