SYRACUSE, N.Y. — About an hour before Syracuse tipped off against St. John’s on Sunday, Orange senior forward James Southerland emerged from the locker room for warmups for the first time in a month.
That’s all it took for Syracuse (20-3, 8-2 Big East) to become a bona fide player again as the madness that is March approaches.
“It gives us eight guys,” Orange coach Jim Boeheim said. “Seven guys really is not enough. You can get by with seven, but if you have foul problems or a fast-paced game, you need that one extra guy.”
In this topsy-turvy college basketball season — six Top 25 teams lost on Saturday alone, including two of the top five — Syracuse has been a mainstay in the top 10, even without Southerland, who missed six games due to an academic issue that was resolved on Friday.
The Orange moved up three spots this week to No. 6, where they were ranked before consecutive road losses to unranked Villanova in overtime and Pittsburgh when the Panthers were not ranked.
Southerland was ruled ineligible before the Orange tipped off at home against Villanova on Jan. 12. Just over two weeks later, 6-foot-9 freshman Dajuan Coleman, who started the first 20 games of the season, was lost for a month after undergoing knee surgery.
That dropped Boeheim’s roster to seven scholarship players, and while freshman Jerami Grant played very well in Southerland’s absence, the Orange struggled offensively without its best outside shooter, going 4-2. Syracuse scored only 57 points in a two-point home win over Cincinnati, had 61 in regulation in the loss to Villanova, and matched their season low with 55 against Pitt.
In his first stint on the floor Sunday, Southerland committed a turnover as soon as he touched the ball, then missed all four shots he attempted in the first half. He did convert two free throws before halftime, and that apparently was all he needed to regain his shooting touch.
“The free throws got me going,” said Southerland, 36 of 95 (37.9 percent) from behind the arc on the season. “I didn’t think about the first half. I just came out (in the second half) and fired.”
Southerland was 4 of 6 in the second half, 3 for 5 from long range, as Syracuse pulled away to 77-58 win after the Red Storm had closed a 13-point deficit to five.
The Orange, which had been shooting a woeful 30 percent on 3-pointers in Big East play, finished 10 of 22 (45.5 percent). Southerland hit consecutive 3s in a span of just over a minute to give Syracuse a double-digit lead midway in the second half.
“It shows you the type of team we have,” senior guard Brandon Triche said. “Emotionally, we were much more confident getting an extra scorer. He’s going to open it up for everybody else. You’ll see Michael’s (Carter-Williams) assists go up more. You’ll see my assists go up more. It’s going to be more spread when you have a knockdown shooter on the 3-point line.”
The box score validated that. Triche matched his career high with seven assists and Carter-Williams, the nation’s leader at 8.9 assists per game, finished with eight, matching his highest total since he had 10 in the Big East opener against Rutgers last month.
Boeheim said Grant would start the remainder of the season, but his playing time likely won’t come close to approaching what it was during Southerland’s absence. Grant averaged 33 minutes and had 59 points and 27 boards in the six games.
Against St. John’s, he had four points and one rebound in 15 minutes.
If he was concerned, Grant didn’t show it.
“We’re teammates. We have each other’s back,” Grant said. “I think I’ve proved myself the last few games, so it feels good (to start). I feel coach can use me and James now. Before, I really wasn’t getting an opportunity, but now we have two weapons.
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