There was no mistaking what the big game of the night was on Thursday with a pair of unexpected unbeatens facing off in Tampa on the final night of the SEC/Big East Invitational. Both Syracuse and Florida have posted impressive early-season results, showing the pundits who didn't expect much of them in the preseason that they've got the ability to have an impact nationally. And with neither team expected to be this good this early it was fitting that an unexpected source of offense proved to be the difference in Syracuse's 85-73 victory.
Wesley Johnson was unable to get going until the second half thanks to the defense of Dan Werner but that wasn't an issue thanks to junior forward Rick Jackson. The Philadelphia native scored sixteen points and grabbed seven rebounds in the first half, closing the half on the receiving end of an alley-oop from Brandon Triche to send the Orange into the locker room with a 42-36 lead. Jackson finished the game with a game-high 21 points and eleven rebounds while Johnson added seventeen and ten rebounds.
Florida was led by Kenny Boynton (20 points), Chandler Parsons (19 points) and Erving Walker (14 points) but they couldn't match the scoring depth and strength of the Orange, especially in the frontcourt. Syracuse won the battle on the boards 39-28 and still shot 52.8% from the field despite a 3-for-13 night from behind the arc. The one area of concern should be a familiar issue for Syracuse fans: foul shooting. The Orange were a +11 in point differential from the charity stripe but finished just 18-for-31 in that area.
Could that cost them down the road? Possibly, but the number of scoring options that Jim Boeheim has at his disposal along with the improved defense makes Syracuse a credible Final Four possibility at this juncture in the season. Florida had its moments in defeat but as Jackson's night displayed they've got to get stronger up front, especially Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus.
Three Key Happenings
1. Tim Miles' Rams pick up a good win for the program. The "just like football" chant made an appearance in a Mountain West arena for the second consecutive night, this time in honor of Colorado State's 77-62 win over in-state rival Colorado. The Rams had firm control of the game early in the second half but had trouble with the Buffaloes' pressure defense that cut the lead down the five at one point. But thanks to Travis Franklin (22 points, 10 rebounds), Dorian Green (21 points) and Andy Ogide (13 points, eight rebounds) CSU held on for their sixth win of the season.
From a national point of view beating the team picked to finish last in the Big 12 isn't a big deal. But for CSU to pick up their sixth win of the season this early (they won nine all of last season) is a good sign in regards to the direction in which the program is headed. Now the Rams have to guard against a letdown, something that happens to many teams following a win like this, when a dangerous Montana team visits on Saturday. This game will likely say more about the growth of the CSU program.
2. Western Carolina is a threat to get back to the NCAA Tournament. The Catamounts moved to 9-1 on the season with a 66-59 home win over Campbell thanks to then three pointers and sixteen points off the bench from Mike Williams. Guard Brigham Waginger added twelve on four three pointers and the Catamounts held the Camels to 33.9% shooting (1-10 3PT) on the evening. Jonathan Rodriquez, one of the better mid-major frontcourt players in America, led Campbell with eighteen points and ten rebounds.
The SoCon champ tends to come from the Southern Division (where Charleston and Davidson reside) but this could be the year in which Western makes its first tournament appearance since nearly knocking off top-seed Purdue in 1996. They defend well and it's tough to believe that nights in which preseason All-SoCon honorees Harouna Mutombo and Brandon Giles combine to shoot 5-16 from the field will be the norm.
3. Rhode Island holds off Northeastern. Despite the Huskies now having a record of 2-5 things did not come easily to the Rams, who needed a pair of Keith Cothran free throws to seal the 79-76 victory. Cothran led the Rams with nineteen points in their third consecutive win and Jim Baron's squad is a two-point loss at VCU away from being 8-0. Matt Janning led Northeastern with 21 points and the many tests that Bill Coen's team has taken on should benefit them once they take on the CAA portion of their schedule.
Rhode Island, who receives scoring from a number of options, was picked in the preseason to finish eighth in the Atlantic 10 but they've got a good shot at finishing higher provided they defend on a nightly basis. Their fast tempo will allow them to outscore some teams but to crack the upper echelon of the A-10 the Rams can ill-afford to have nights in which the opposition shoots 10-for-17 from behind the arc.
Top Three Games
1. Florida Atlantic 106, Warner Southern 99 (3OT) Mike Jarvis' Owls got lucky in Boca Raton, surviving what would have been an embarrassing loss thanks to five players scoring in double figures. The Royals, who play at the NAIA level, outrebounded FAU 55-39 for the game. That won't get it done against Division I competition.
2. Syracuse 85, Florida 73 See above.
3. Cal Baptist 67, Pepperdine 65 The Waves were alone in losing to an NAIA school on Thursday night, with Davey Hopkins' layup with 8.2 seconds remaining providing the winning points. Mychel Thompson and Keion Bell combined to score 41 points for the Waves but no other player scored more than seven in the loss.
Three Notable Performances
1. F Rick Jackson (Syracuse) Jackson scored 21 points and grabbed ten rebounds in Syracuse's 85-73 win over Florida.
2. F Draymond Green (Michigan State) Green scored nineteen points and tallied twelve rebounds in the Spartans' 88-57 win over Oakland.
3. F Lance Stephenson (Cincinnati) Stephenson's 17 points, 8 rebounds and three assists saved the Bearcats on a night in which Deonta Vaughn failed to score and Yancy Gates scored just eight off the bench. Stephenson's night proved to be the difference in the 63-59 win over Miami (Ohio).