Cuse's two-headed PG effective vs. Cal
NEW YORK -- You're not going to get a statement here that Syracuse is better off without point guard Jonny Flynn.
Flynn was one of those gate receipt kind of guards. His gutty performance in the six-overtime Big East tournament thriller against Connecticut last season was the sort of game fans of the sport covet. Go watch Flynn and you were sure to see a show.
"Offensively, you knew what you were going to get with Jonny -- pick and roll, get in the lane and score," SU assistant coach Mike Hopkins said of Flynn, who averaged a team-high 17.4 points per game and was drafted sixth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
But, and here is where the argument begins, the Orange might actually be better defensively in the absence of the generously listed 6-foot Flynn. What the Orange did in Thursday night's 95-73 win over Pac-10 favorite Cal was show how much longer and more disruptive the new-look point guards are this season.
Six-foot-4 freshman Brandon Triche and 6-2 Scoop Jardine, a third-year sophomore who was out last season with a stress fracture, have a length and reach at the top of the Syracuse zone that has jump-started a renewed sense of purpose defensively.
The easy thing to do is focus on the offensive production in this 2K Sports Classic semifinal. Jardine scored 22 points and had 6 assists, 1 turnover and 4 steals. Triche, who started, scored 9 points with 1 assist, 2 turnovers and 2 steals.
"You have to question us with [Flynn] being the No. 6 player in the draft last year," Triche said. "But me and Scoop have confidence in our game, and we can be equally as good as Jonny statwise. That's what happened. [Jardine] had 22 and I had nine, and that's 31. Jonny wasn't averaging 31, so we kind of did better than he did."
Neither is as electrifying as Flynn, who could turn on a dime and finish without hesitation. He had the toughness, the grit and the determination to finish plays and will his team to wins.
The Orange were a bit of an unknown this season without him, let alone with the departure of Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris, who also left early for professional ball. We knew Cuse was solid inside with Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku, had a shooter in senior Andy Rautins, and had a hyped star in Iowa State transfer Wesley Johnson. The biggest question was at point.
It's extremely early, but perhaps the doubt was unfounded.
"They're interchangeable," Rautins said of the two-headed point guard. "It's great having them on the court at any given time."
Rautins said there was no confidence vacuum for the players when it was clear Flynn was gone.
Nevertheless, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim isn't ready to anoint either of them without seeing more improvement.
"We've still got a long ways to go, and we've got to get them to get the ball to our big guys better over the next few weeks," Boeheim said. "Scoop watched Jonny a lot in practice last year and really figured some things out."
Still, Jardine knew there were questions about whether he could take on the leadership role.
Before tipoff, Flynn sent a text message to Jardine.
"It really helped me out," Jardine said. "He said 'Let's Goooooo.' I wrote him back and said, 'I got you.' And he said, 'Go show them what you've got.' I played against him for two years. I knew that if I was backing up Jonny or Brandon like I'm doing now, I had to lose weight and work on my shot. Coach Boeheim and Coach Hop didn't lose faith in me. I've got to give them credit for sticking with me.
"It's tough to lose the three guys we did, but people don't know what you've got until you show them."
What the country saw in Syracuse's dismantling of a depleted Cal team that was without its top two rebounders, injured Theo Robertson and Harper Kamp, was an Orange team that is long enough, athletic enough and productive enough to contend for the Big East title.
Yes, even after losing an exhibition game to Le Moyne (are we over that yet, America?) -- a game in which Boeheim experimented with playing man-to-man.
"Had I done that [against Cal], we would have lost by 30," Boeheim said.
"It did start our season, losing that game," Rautins said. "We had a cloud that we didn't deserve to have. We weren't the Sweet 16 team. It motivated us. We had to find an identity of being a hardworking, zone defensive team that can translate that into offense."
That's what the Orange were Thursday night, led by the combination of Jardine and Triche -- not better than Flynn, but certainly more than capable of giving Syracuse production, confidence and competence at the position.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.