SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) A year ago Syracuse surprised by winning its first 25 games - nine of them nail-biters - and zooming to No. 1 in its first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference with an unflappable freshman point guard guiding the way.
With Tyler Ennis now trying to make it with the Phoenix Suns of the NBA, a new freshman, Kaleb Joseph, is manning the point this year with a lot of inexperience all around him, and the Orange are struggling in the young season.
Syracuse (5-3) has dropped two straight, the most recent a 69-57 loss on Saturday night to St. John's. That snapped the Orange's 55-game game nonconference winning streak in the Carrier Dome and left the 24,884 hometown fans in a daze.
Football fizzled, finishing at 3-9.
Is basketball headed in that direction, too?
The Orange think not.
''We've just got to put it behind us,'' senior center Rakeem Christmas said. ''Everybody's going to step it up. We'll be fine.''
Criticized annually for not venturing far from home early in the season, Jim Boeheim's Orange played at No. 17 Michigan a week ago and had a terrific chance to win until Joseph and fellow freshman Chris McCullough committed turnovers on consecutive possessions in the closing seconds with the Wolverines clinging to a one-point lead.
Four days after going 0 for 14 on 3-pointers in an easy win over Holy Cross, the Orange hit a season-high six 3s against the Wolverines, who held on to win 66-63. Now, even that showing in a hostile environment is questionable. Michigan was stunned 72-70 at home on Saturday by the New Jersey Institute of Technology, a commuter school whose ''arena'' also serves as a campus fitness center, and plummeted out of the Top 25 on Monday.
What ails the Orange seems an easy fix - just hit some shots from outside to give the 6-foot-9 Christmas and 6-10 McCullough more room inside. Trouble is, so far nobody has displayed the ability to do so with any regularity. Syracuse is shooting 21.1 percent from behind the arc and 44.4 percent overall from the floor.
After eight games last season, shooting guard Trevor Cooney was 26 for 55 (47.3 percent) from long range and was leading the ACC when conference play began. A streaky shooter, he finished the season 90 of 240 (37.5 percent), and Ennis also proved capable from afar, hitting 30 of 85 (35.3 percent).
This season, Cooney is shooting 28.3 percent (13 of 46) and his help isn't helping. Junior swingman Michael Gbinije, who made his first career start on Saturday, is 3 for 21 (14.3 percent) from behind the arc and Joseph is 3 for 13 (23.1 percent). Sophomores Ron Patterson, B.J. Johnson and Tyler Roberson, who received limited playing time as freshmen, are a combined 10 for 62 on 3-pointers (16.1 percent). A year ago after eight games, the trio was a collective 1 for 15, so there's been a smidgen of progress there.
St. John's snapped a nine-game losing streak against its former Big East rival by hounding Cooney - he was 0 for 4 on 3s - and gambling the other guys wouldn't pick up the slack as they swarmed around Christmas and McCullough inside.
The strategy worked. Syracuse finished 3 of 22 from behind the arc and St. John's torched the Orange's zone defense with 9-for-16 shooting on 3s while leading scorer Christmas attempted a season-low eight shots (he finished with 15 points and 15 boards).
In the decisive closing moments against the Red Storm, which finished the game with a 16-2 spurt in the final 5 minutes, Patterson missed two open 3s and a jumper to finish 1 of 7 from behind the arc. Syracuse also finished 10 of 20 on free throws.
''When you're in close games at the end, you have to be good,'' Boeheim said. ''We have to make shots or else we're gonna lose. It's not that complicated.''
Syracuse doesn't play again until Louisiana Tech visits Sunday afternoon.
''It's still early. We have a long way to go,'' said McCullough, the Orange's second-leading scorer (14.4). ''We have a week of practice before the next game. It's a bad start so far, but we're only going to get better from here.''
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