Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim reacts during the first half against Long Beach State in an NCAA college basketball game in Syracuse, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Kevin Rivoli)
Kevin Rivoli
January 02, 2015

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) Jim Boeheim avoided what would have been a record fifth non-conference loss in his long tenure by guiding Syracuse to three straight wins leading to the start of Atlantic Coast Conference play.

After losing at Michigan and Villanova and to St. John's at home in a difficult four-game stretch, Syracuse has beaten Colgate, Long Beach State and Cornell to gain some momentum since an early-season setback to California.

The 14-point loss to Cal dropped the Orange out of the Top 25, and the ensuing defeats prompted more than a few disparaging remarks from Boeheim about his young team.

Now, his 39th season at the helm doesn't seem quite so bad after all.

Soft-spoken senior center Rakeem Christmas has evolved from Mr. Nice Guy into an imposing force in the paint, freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph is showing signs of maturity, shooting guard Trevor Cooney has regained his outside touch, and junior swingman Michael Gbinije has begun to emerge as a threat. Freshman forward Chris McCullough has struggled since a stellar start to the season, failing to reach double figures in scoring the past five games after averaging 14.4 in the first eight.

Syracuse (9-4) opens ACC play on Saturday at Virginia Tech (8-5), which had won four straight before losing to No. 17 West Virginia on Tuesday.

''We're playing much, much better and looking forward to ... conference play,'' Boeheim said after the win over Cornell. ''We've come through this as well as can be expected. Overall, I think we're more confident offensively. Our defense still has to get better.''

It wasn't too shabby against the Big Red on New Year's Eve. Cornell, which had averaged more than 11 made 3-pointers against Syracuse since 2004, was held to 12 points in the first half and finished the game 4 of 22 from long range.

The Orange have shot less than 40 percent twice - in the losses to Cal (39) and St. John's (39.2) - and have three other games in which they won despite failing to crack 42 percent. In the past four games, Syracuse has made at least 46 percent from the floor to bring its season average to 45.9 percent, a good sign entering the 18-game conference grind.

At 13.5 per game, turnovers remain a concern:

- A season-high 20 in the overtime loss to Villanova ruined a nearly 50 percent shooting day that cost the Orange a signature victory against a top-10 team.

- Syracuse turned it over 19 times - twice in the critical final seconds - against Michigan and lost despite shooting 56.5 percent.

- The Orange had 17 turnovers against Louisiana Tech that nearly led to another loss. Syracuse rallied for a two-point victory on a hook in the lane by Christmas with 3 seconds left.

Rookies Joseph (43) and McCullough (32) lead the team, but in the past three games they've combined for only 10 turnovers while averaging 52 minutes of court time a game together.

''We feel a lot better than we did a few weeks ago,'' said Cooney, who's averaging 13.2 points and has increased his accuracy from long range to 37.2 percent after a disappointing start to the season. ''We're taking the right steps. We just have to continue to take those steps.''

Added Joseph: ''I definitely feel we've improved. It's obvious when you watch the games from my first game to the last few games. Guys are falling into their roles a lot better. Everybody's looking more confident and comfortable.''

Another flaw has been long-range shooting. It's still a woeful 28.8 percent after an awful start that dropped Syracuse to the bottom of the national statistics. But it has come alive during the modest winning streak - the Orange have hit 21 of 44 (47.7 percent) in the past three games.

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