After Syracuse University released that senior forward James Southerland would not be participating for an undisclosed amount of time, the fear in some was that the Orange would not be able to compete with the top-ranked teams in the nation.
Southerland has been the best performer from long range for Syracuse this season, making at least 50% of his attempts in five different contests.
In three of those games, Southerland made more than 60% of his tries from three-point range, with his best outing coming on the road against the Arkansas Razorbacks. Southerland made nine of his 13 attempts from beyond the arc in that game, for 27 points from three-point range alone.
So when the news broke leading into Syracuse's home match with the Villanova Wildcats that Southerland is out indefinitely, some had begun to waver on whether or not the Orange could do well without him.
Syracuse responded by coming back in the second half to defeat the Wildcats, 72-61.
But, then came the next test, going up against the number-one-ranked team in the country, the Louisville Cardinals.
On top of that, the Orange would be away from their home crowd, playing on the road in the KFC Yum! Center.
With Southerland still being held out of action, the questions started to pour in. Who will lead the team? Who will step up from long range? Who will get more minutes? Will that player(s) be able to handle more time on the floor?
Then the game began.
Syracuse came out attacking, holding the initial advantage to lead Louisville for the first half of the opening period.
The lone senior left on the court for the Orange, guard Brandon Triche, took the reins as far as scoring, making a layup followed by two three-pointers.
Then, with under five minutes remaining in the first half, Triche took control once again, making four straight baskets for Syracuse, two layups and two three-pointers. His play brought Syracuse within one on back-to-back occasions.
Later in the second half, with under nine minutes to play in the game, Triche connected from long range to tie the game at 55, followed by his jumper that brought the Orange within one once again.
Though he rarely seems to get the credit, Triche has worked to be one of the more consistent players on the team in scoring. In 15 of Syracuse's 18 games, Triche has attained double-figures, leading the team against Louisville with 23.
Fellow guard Michael Carter-Williams awoke from dismal play in the match against the Cardinals, where he turned the ball over eight times himself, to help turn the game around right when the Orange needed it most. His two steals in the last 29 seconds of the game helped to turn the advantage in Syracuse's favor and keep it that way. Carter-Williams took the first steal downcourt for a two-handed dunk with pressure on him to give the Orange a 69-68 lead. The following steal took away the final opportunity for the Cardinals to score, solidifying the victory for Syracuse.
Both guards played in all but two minutes of the match with Louisville, accumulating 39 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists between them.
Outside of the backcourt, junior forward C.J. Fair did not take one break outside of timeouts in the Louisville game, playing in all 40 minutes.
After the Villanova game, Fair expressed that he needs to be a leader whether or not Southerland is competing. He understands that behind Southerland and Triche he is the next in line.
With Southerland out, Fair joins Triche as the lone upperclassmen on the court. To both of their credits, they have been the most consistent scorers on the team through the season. Fair has reached double-figures in 13 of Syracuse's 18 match-ups, only two games less than Triche.
Along with the veterans, another forward has been impressive in the absence of Southerland. Freshman Jerami Grant went from 10 minutes combined between the Providence Friars and South Florida Bulls' games to 29 minutes in the Villanova game alone. He followed by playing in 35 of the 40 allotted minutes versus Louisville.
How did he respond? After not scoring in double-figures in 10-straight games, Grant reached at least 10 points in the two games where Southerland was unavailable. He has attacked the rim, chased down rebounds, and cashed in at the charity stripe. On the free throw line, Grant has made seven of his eight attempts in the past two games. He has also grabbed three offensive and two defensive rebounds in each of the last two matches. Southerland was averaging 5.2 rebounds per game before being taken out of competition.
Two games without Southerland. The result: two wins. Triche, Carter-Williams, Fair and Grant made up for the loss of Southerland's production.
Southerland was consistently inconsistent. Triche and Fair have been the opposite. Carter-Williams, though he adds mistakes, has been working to clean them up, while Grant is taking Southerland's absence as an opportunity to show his worth on the floor.
What was thought to hand defeat to a team that had been struggling to keep up with opponents, at times, as of late instead has seemed to cause them to take more responsibility.
The tree may be missing a branch right now, but that does not mean that the Orange are still not ripening.