Erratic Syracuse readies for beginning of ACC play

Syracuse's Tyler Lydon, right, shoots over Cornell's Matt Morgan, left, in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Syracuse, N.Y., Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016. Syracuse won 80-56. (AP Photo/Nick Lisi)

Syracuse was erratic through much of the nonconference portion of its schedule, losing five times. Now, the Orange face the start of Atlantic Coast Conference play wondering if they’re ready for the challenge.

It’s anybody’s guess as the team gets set for Sunday’s conference opener at Boston College (7-6), the only team in the ACC with a worse record than the Orange (8-5).

”I have no idea, no idea,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. ”I don’t worry about it.”

Syracuse finished nonconference play with an 80-56 win over Cornell of the Ivy League on Tuesday night. Two of its losses have been against teams ranked this year (No. 14 Wisconsin and South Carolina, which has dropped out of the AP Top 25 ), and the other three setbacks came against three former Big East foes (Connecticut, Georgetown, and St. John’s).

For a team that was ranked in the preseason and bolted to a 4-0 start, the spotty performance since has been puzzling, given two fifth-year transfers lending much-needed experience to a young lineup.

Syracuse leads the Atlantic Coast Conference in steals (8.9 per game), but Boeheim’s signature zone defense has been lacking much too often. In the 93-60 loss to St. John’s four days before Christmas, the worst home loss in Boeheim’s 41 years on the bench, the Red Storm hit 12 of 29 (41.4 percent) from beyond the arc and scored 32 points off 19 Orange turnovers as Syracuse finished with just three steals.

A closed-door team meeting with just the players followed.

”After the St. John’s game we all had an agreement to play hard,” freshman guard Tyus Battle said. ”It doesn’t matter if our shots aren’t falling. We can control the things we can control, which is playing hard, playing defense, and getting rebounds and hustling. We didn’t do that against St. John’s. We have to take that into every game we play.”

With a deeper bench than usual, Boeheim has strayed from form, shuffling the starting lineup a few times already.

”We’ve never really had to put five new guys in there,” Boeheim said. ”It’s a work in progress. We just need to kind of figure out how it all fits together.”

The long-range game was expected to be a forte of the team and it has been. Syracuse is shooting 39.4 percent (121 of 307) from beyond the arc and three of the top four marksmen are hitting better than 42 percent.

Sophomore forward Tyler Lydon has rebounded from an awful start to the season and a recent four-game slump, hitting 11 of his last 17 in the past four games to raise his season average on 3-pointers to a team-best 44.2 percent. He’s followed by Battle (24 of 55, 43.6 percent) and fifth-year transfer John Gillon (18 of 42, 42.9 percent). Leading scorer Andrew White, the other veteran transfer, is averaging just under 15 points and has converted 39 of 103 (37.9 percent) from beyond the arc.

Syracuse has struggled in transition, a key element to the way the Orange play the game, but it has put together some solid spurts of play in several games and has lost only once in the seven games freshman forward Taurean Thompson has scored in double digits. Thompson has developed a high-low game with Lydon that has been very effective at times.

”We’re at our best when we get in the middle because when we get in the middle shooters are open every single possession,” Thompson said. ”We can score in the middle, too. Sometimes, we get caught up with the 3-point line and going side-to-side instead of going forward and back. Once we start doing that, I think we’ll be real hard to stop. We’ve just got to do it consistently. We can’t do it in spurts.”

The gauntlet that is the ACC, which has six ranked teams, half of them in the top 10, awaits, and Boston College promises to offer a challenge despite its record.

Jerome Robinson has scored 20 or more points in four straight games and ranks third in the ACC in points per game (20.5), while Ty Bowman was tabbed ACC freshman of the week. Bowman averaged 24.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.5 steals in the Eagles’ two games last week and was 20 for 29 (69.0 percent) from the floor.

”We’re gonna have our hands full during league play,” White said. ”It’s a step up, regardless of who you’re playing.”

More AP college basketball: www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25 .