Frank Howard’s return to full strength a key for Syracuse as conference play heats up

first_imgIt came in one swift motion. A behind-the-back dribble was followed by a step back. Frank Howard stood inches behind the 3-point line while Duke’s Alex O’Connell lay on the floor in front of him. Howard nailed the 3 and pulled Syracuse within five.After SU’s upset over then-No. 1 Duke, it seemed Howard was back to full strength. In a season that started late due to injury and took nearly 12 games before finding his groove, Howard has been the spark during Syracuse’s (16-7, 7-3 Atlantic Coast) hot start to conference play. As the Orange enters its toughest stretch of the season that includes four Top 25 matchups in the next month, their success will be synonymous with the play of Howard.“Frank has struggled (all season),” SU head coach Jim Boeheim said on Jan. 14, after the Duke win. “When he plays like that, we’re a different team. …Last year, Frank averaged 15 points per game and this year it’s been six. So I hope he’s back.”Howard’s lower leg injury held him out of Syracuse’s first four games. To make up for his loss, SU went to freshman Jalen Carey and junior Tyus Battle to fill his minutes. Carey struggled turning the ball over and Battle hadn’t adjusted to running point. SU dropped two-straight games at Madison Square Garden.Then, Howard’s long-awaited return came on Nov. 21 against Colgate. He started and played 19 minutes, shooting five 3s — he had five assists, three steals and no turnovers.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textThat started a tumultuous 12-game stretch where Howard worked back to full strength. Inconsistency followed. Howard’s jump shot, one that SU head coach Jim Boeheim said had progressed tremendously in the offseason, had yet to come to fruition. He struggled finishing around the rim and in the paint, too.In Howard’s first 12 games of the season, he averaged 6.7 points per game on 32.1 percent shooting, and 26.4 percent from 3. He had just four points in a comeback win over Georgetown, and nine in a shocking loss to Old Dominion.All the while, he and Boeheim constantly reinforced that he was close to 100 percent.“It’s been very frustrating,” Howard said of his recovery process on Jan. 14. “I think this was the first year I got a full summer to really work. I got to a great spot … Not really knowing it would take this long to get your rhythm back.”Anna Henderson | Digital Design EditorPositives came sporadically. He stole the ball four times in back-to-back games in mid-December. But then he shot 2 for 7 in an upset loss to Old Dominion in which SU blew a double-digit lead. He made 60 percent of his 3s against Buffalo. But then he was 1-of-6 from the field with three turnovers against Arkansas State. And he shot 50 percent in a strong home win against Clemson, while dishing out four assists. But after he scored eight points in a 14-point loss to Georgia Tech.Then came Duke. Howard’s second-half breakout performance against the Blue Devils keyed the Orange in an upset win, 95-91. After no first half points and three fouls, the senior point guard shot 7 for 12 in the second half and overtime, scoring 16 points. He added five assists and six rebounds, too, while adding a momentum-shifting breakaway steal-and-score in overtime.“I definitely feel explosive again,” Howard said after the win. “I’m still working, but yeah, I’m definitely back.”Since Duke, and over the last seven games, Howard has become an integral part of Syracuse’s offense. His scoring average has jumped by nearly four points and his shooting percentages by nearly double digits compared to his first 12 games.Some of that can be credited toward an increased pressure on Battle. Howard said when Battle handles the ball, Howard has extra space to shoot or make a quick move to get by a defender.When Battle missed his first 10 shots and was held to six points to Pittsburgh on Feb. 2, Oshae Brissett and Howard took on the bulk of the offensive load. On one play, Battle drove toward the paint and drew Howard’s man. Once he hit the free-throw line, Battle kicked it to Howard on the left wing.The lone player with four years of experience in the Syracuse offense stood beyond the 3-point line, right hand curled, as his 3-ball arced toward the hoop.His defensive nature — Howard led the ACC in steals per game as a junior — and ability to run the offense had been desperately needed. Carey has struggled with both, and while Battle has seen an increase in time at the point, his success has come with Howard playing at 100 percent.SU’s offense as a whole has seen an uptick in production, scoring more points and shooting the 3 ball much better. Before Duke, SU had shot above 40 percent from deep just twice. Since, the Orange have done it three times, with Howard shooting 35.9 percent in that span.“With injuries like that you just have to take your time,” Battle said after downing Clemson on Jan. 9. “It takes time to get back. That’s the hardest part with injuries is getting back. He was thrown into the fire.”Howard’s presence has added another 3-point threat that can also finish around the rim. Another defensively sound, lengthy, athletic guard that anchors the front of the 2-3 zone. Another player that’s as experienced as anyone on the roster and has been to the NCAA Tournament twice in three years.In Syracuse’s most recent game, an 18-point home loss to No. 22 Florida State, Howard played just 14 minutes. He took just two first half shots — missing both — before returning in the second half and making two errant passes that resulted in turnovers. It was a rare off-game from Howard, and this time Boeheim didn’t offer him the time and pulled him from the contest. The Orange were able to cut the FSU lead from 22 to one, but without Howard in the lineup, fatigue eventually set in and the Seminoles put one final run on the Orange.If one thing was made clear from Tuesday night’s loss, it was that Syracuse needs Howard on the floor. Published on February 7, 2019 at 12:06 am Contact Charlie: [email protected] | @charliedisturco Facebook Twitter Google+center_img Commentslast_img

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