Syracuse again relying on 2 frosh and 2 fifth-year players
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) It almost appears like a dash of deja vu for Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim.
Last year, after sitting out a nine-game NCAA suspension, Boeheim managed to guide the Orange to a berth in the NCAA Tournament and the team quickly was rejuvenated, making it to the Final Four with two freshmen and two fifth-year players leading the way.
Halfway through the ACC schedule this season, Boeheim again is relying on two fifth-year players (Andrew White and John Gillon), two freshmen (Tyus Battle and Taurean Thompson), and sophomore star Tyler Lydon.
But there are differences this year.
The veterans of last year, Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney, were immersed in Boeheim's system for several years, while White and Gillon are transfers around for just one and have not adapted as quickly as expected. Malachi Richardson was a vocal leader in his only year with the Orange - he spurred them to a stirring comeback victory over Virginia for a berth in the Final Four last spring - but this year's squad lacks that fiery sparkplug, making the team's struggles more understandable.
With 10 games left in the regular season, Syracuse (12-9, 4-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) finds itself stuck in the middle of the league with a big strike against its hopes for the postseason - no road victories.
The Orange can build a better resume with five games remaining against ranked teams. Fresh from a comeback win over Wake Forest, Syracuse hosts No. 6 Florida State (18-3, 6-2) on Saturday. The Seminoles are coming off a 78-56 loss to Georgia Tech.
''Everybody knows what they have to do,'' said the 6-foot-10 Thompson, who has made eight straight starts and is beginning to flash some defensive skills to go along with his smooth offense around the basket. ''It's a matter of doing it. That's the challenge.''
Thompson had 14 points and three rebounds at Boston College in the ACC opener for the Orange, his first career start. Three games later he led the Orange in scoring for the first time with 18 points, a career-high eight rebounds and a team-leading three blocks in a loss at Virginia Tech.
''He's getting better. He's not where he needs to be,'' Gillon said. ''I think everybody can get better, but I like the strides that he's taking. He's got like a 7-foot-3 wing span. He really changes our defense.''
Thompson also had 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting in just 21 minutes against Wake Forest, all but two points coming in the decisive second half.
''You have to focus on being a two-way player,'' Thompson said. ''That's my focus now. In high school it was just to get a bucket and get recruited, but now you have to defend.''
Syracuse has three players shooting better than 40 percent on 3-pointers for the season - Lydon (44.3 percent), White (41.1) and Battle (40.2), who has started all eight conference games. Battle is averaging 37.3 minutes and 13 points in league play and is 37 of 92 from long range overall.
Backup point guard Frank Howard has sputtered more than expected, and that's been a problem. The sophomore, who started the first 14 games before being replaced by Gillon, has averaged 12.6 minutes in seven conference games and has just 13 points, 16 assists and nine turnovers. He's also missed all six shots he's attempted from behind the 3-point line in league play.
''We've got to get more out of John and Frank as we continue on,'' Boeheim said. ''We've got to get more out of those two guys.''
Not lost has been resurgence of forward Tyler Roberson, who spent much of the early season watching from the bench. Despite foul trouble in four of the past five games, he's averaging 6.9 points and 6.6 rebounds and has 12 blocks in league play. Boeheim, who's been frustrated by Roberson's erratic performances, pointed out the senior's hustle against Wake Forest in his postgame comments.
''I'm just trying to play with energy and do what I need to do. I think I've done that,'' Roberson said. ''It's never easy when you're not playing. I wasn't playing as much as I'm used to, but first and foremost I want to win.
''We all text each other, let each other know if we didn't have a good game or we're not playing as much as we want to. Just stay up. Anything can happen.''
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