Syracuse's C.J. Fair shoots over San Diego State forward J.J. O'Brien (Getty Images)
"Dude," he muttered to nobody in particular. "Everything I shoot is going to the right."
Every Syracuse and San Diego State player could commiserate with Franklin on an afternoon when whipping wind on the deck of the USS Midway made for shooting as ugly as the picturesque backdrop was pretty.
Both teams combined to shoot less than 50 percent from the foul line and less than 10 percent from behind the arc. The difference in ninth-ranked Syracuse's 62-49 victory was the Orange had a smarter plan of attack to deal with the elements and a roster and system better-suited to overcome them.
If Syracuse's famed two-three zone is smothering in a typical setting, attacking it became even more difficult for No. 20 San Diego State on the blustery deck of an aircraft carrier. It was like facing Bubba Watson in a match play event on a course with nothing but par fives or challenging Barry Bonds to a home-run hitting contest in a stadium with a short porch in right field.
A two-three zone invites teams to shoot over the top of it from long distance, but winds strong enough to send stacks of papers and half-empty water bottles flying rendered that strategy futile. San Diego State airballed a trio of 3-pointers and clanked 14 of the 15 others it attempted, the majority coming in the final minutes as it tried to claw back from a double-digit deficit.
If jump shots were a lost cause, attacking the rim wasn't much easier.
Syracuse parlayed its height advantage at every position in the frontcourt into 10 blocked shots. Every time a San Diego State guard found a path through the zone to the rim, Rakeem Christmas, James Southerland or Baye Moussa Keita were there to alter the shot or swat it away.
"They gave us fits with 10 blocked shots and at least that many that they altered," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "They came flying on any number of what looked like were going to be easy buckets."
Winston Shepard (Getty Images)
Although C.J. Fair sank an early 3-pointer to help propel the Orange to a 17-4 lead, that was the only shot from behind the arc they made and only one of four they attempted. Instead, Syracuse remained disciplined and stuck with its pregame strategy of passing up open jumpers and attacking the basket.
"I hesitated on a lot of shots I would normally shoot," senior guard Brandon Triche said. "We pretty much didn't shoot any jump shots because we knew we'd have a better chance of scoring by getting to the basket and pounding the rebounds."
Fair, Triche and promising sophomore Michael Carter-Williams were the most effective at getting to the rim, scoring 17, 17 and 15 points respectively to help keep San Diego State from getting within striking distance in the second half. That trio also took advantage of the Aztecs' turnovers, errant shots and sometimes-sloppy transition defense to get easy fast-break baskets, a coveted commodity under these conditions.
"I'm proud of these guys because this was a tough day," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "We had to get to the baket. C.J. and Michael and Brandon got to the basket. They made some hard plays, very hard plays. That was the only way you're going to score because you weren't going to make any jump shots."
It's difficult to glean much from this season opener for the Orange or Aztecs because the conditions were so unlike any other game either team will play moving forward.
For a San Diego State team projected to finish in the top two in the Mountain West and return to the NCAA tournament, this was an early setback but not one that should diminish expectations. The Aztecs' starting backcourt probably won't shoot 0 for 14 from 3-point range indoors, nor will the team shoot so poorly from the foul line again that its crowd erupts after every made free throw.
For a Syracuse team expected to contend in the Big East despite the loss of stars Dion Waiters, Fab Melo, Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine, this was a promising start -- but nothing more than that. The backcourt showed signs of being able to go from complementary players to go-to scorers and the interior defense was formidable, but the Carrier Dome won't have gusts of wind strong enough to render opposing jump shooters useless.
The one thing Syracuse can definitely take from this win is the knowledge it can win when jump shots aren't falling.
"I think the toughness of this game will be good for us in the long run," Boeheim said. "When we get in a tough game or get in a game where we're not shooting well from the outside, you have to get to the basket, and this game will give us something to fall back on."
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