- Associated Press - Friday, December 8, 2017

Eight games into the season, Syracuse has only one loss and coach Jim Boeheim is optimistic his Orange can improve a lot.

“I know we can play better than this,” Boeheim said. “We have to get better on the offensive end, and we expect to be able to do that.”

Because it lost the bulk of its offense from last year (graduate transfers Andrew White and John Gillon along with star forward Tyler Lydon, who left for the NBA after two seasons) and had four freshmen and only one returning starter, Syracuse was expected to struggle offensively and it has. The Orange are averaging 72.3 points, tied for 235th nationally and are shooting 43.3 percent, a woeful 27.4 percent from behind the arc.

Still, the newcomers have provided a spark in the early season. In the Orange’s 72-63 victory over former Big East rival UConn on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, freshman forward Oshae Brissett had 16 points and 10 rebounds, his fourth double-double of the season. In all, the freshmen, including redshirt Matthew Moyer (18), combined to score 39 points in the game.

Sophomore Tyus Battle, that starter from last year, is averaging 20.3 points to lead the team. He’s followed by junior point guard Frank Howard, who’s averaging 14.3 points and six assists to go with 3.6 turnovers in his first stint leading the team for an extended time. The 6-foot-8 Brissett, a native of Ontario, Canada, has been an impressive surprise, averaging nearly a double-double - 12.8 points and 9.8 rebounds.

Boeheim said before the season that this team would be better defensively than last year’s squad, which finished 19-15 and 10-8 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. So far, that’s been the case for the most part.

The Orange, whose only loss came against No. 2 Kansas last Saturday, are allowing just over 62 points a game, tied for 24th nationally, and have dominated the glass 346-247. That translates into a 12.4 rebounding margin, fifth nationally and behind only top-ranked Duke (14.1) in the ACC. Syracuse also is averaging 9.5 steals, third among Power Five teams, and its average of 6.1 blocks per game is tied for 13th nationally.

However, excluding the Jayhawks, none of Syracuse’s first six opponents was ranked in the AP Top 25 and none of the next seven is, either. Syracuse also has been weak defending the 3 - opponents are hitting at a clip of 34.5 percent from long range, putting Syracuse and Boeheim’s 2-3 zone defense at 181st nationally.

The Orange’s best win so far was a 72-70 triumph over Maryland at home in the ACC/Big Ten challenge, a game that featured 15 ties and 20 lead changes.

“It’s just all learning experiences,” Battle said. “It helps us going into ACC play. It’s good preparation for us.”

The Orange were the No. 1 seed in last spring’s NIT, which likely meant they were the last team eliminated for an NCAA Tournament berth. They play at Georgetown next week and have four more games in the friendly confines of the Carrier Dome before opening conference play at home against Virginia Tech on New Year’s Eve as they try to build a resume good enough for the NCAA Tournament this time.

“We just need to get wins,” Boeheim said. “It’s really hard to win unless you’ve got a great team. It’s a battle wherever you go.

“There’s a lot of positives we can build on, but Saturday against Colgate (3-5) we’ll have a tough game. That’s just college basketball.”

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More college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25


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