ADVERTISEMENT

His team was not in a slump. Jim Boeheim kept telling us that. All right, Syracuse had lost five of its last seven games, but this was no major crisis. The Orange weren’t some fragile impostor, a team destined to go off the rails.

Boeheim is a basketball minimalist. He doesn’t tend to complicate matters. So while the Orange were struggling in certain basic areas, they had one simple problem: They weren’t the same team without a fully healthy Jerami Grant.

Once Grant returned to full health, Syracuse would again resemble the team that got off to a 25-0 start and surged to the top of the national polls.

Well, now we know what Boeheim was talking about. Grant, a 6-8 sophomore forward, was back to his old self Thursday, and it was evident from the very outset that the Orange are a different team with him on top of his game – a national title contender.

Grant was a soaring presence as the Orange buried Western Michigan, 77-53, in their NCAA Tournament opener at First Niagara Center. Grant scored 16 points, eight on dunks, and roamed the back edge of Syracuse’s signature 2-3 zone against an inferior and befuddled Broncos squad.

Before the season, Grant told a Syracuse reporter, “I love the big stage.” It showed. Barely a minute into the contest, Grant broke loose on the break and dunked. Just that quickly, he seemed to announce that he and his teammates were ready to leave their late-season issues behind.

“It was a statement,” said Grant, who had an ice pack taped to his lower back after the win. “We wanted to come out and show everybody we’re the same team we were when we went 25-0. We had some rough stretches throughout the end of the season, me being hurt,” Baye Keita “being hurt. But we’re at full force now.”

It’s only one game, of course, and Western Michigan, the MAC tourney champion, was clearly overmatched. The last time I saw a Broncos team so perplexed on offense was in the Super Bowl.

But the Syracuse 2-3 zone does that to people. Teams prepare for it. Western supposedly had an edge because they played twice against Eastern Michigan, whose head coach, Rob Murphy, brought the 2-3 with him from Syracuse.

“Our length is something you can’t simulate in practice,” Grant said. “They didn’t really know what to expect. They might have thought they did.”

If the Broncos have anyone who can impersonate Grant in practice, I didn’t see him. It’s true. You’re never ready for the 2-3 until you see it up close. Boeheim has Grant and C.J. Fair, the wing men in back, play high to scuttle the opposition’s offense along the lanes.

Practice is one thing. It’s another to catch the ball and see Grant or Fair flying at you, ready to disrupt your well-laid plans. Such athletes are rare, in this case a product of exceptional hoop genes.

Grant is the son of Harvey Grant, who had a nice career in the NBA. His uncle Horace, dad’s identical twin brother, was the unsung power forward on those Chicago Bulls championship teams with Michael Jordan. His brother Jerian plays for Notre Dame. Another brother, Jerai, played at Clemson and is playing pro ball in Australia.

Jerami is likely to enter the NBA draft this spring. Last summer, he was named to the USA under-19 team, but had to sit out with mononucleosis. He broke his finger before the college season and missed the opener. Then he suffered a lower back injury during the season.

But when Grant, 20, is healthy and motivated by the big stage, you realize the kid is destined to play at the next level.

“He’s a very good player,” Boeheim said, “particularly when people double-team” Tyler Ennis. “It gives Jerami a lot of space to maneuver in, and he’s very good in those situations.”

That’s putting it mildly. A legion of orange-clad fans had a more emphatic reaction when they saw Grant “maneuver in space.”

With SU leading, 19-11, Grant spun into the lane and slammed one home, lifting the fans to their feet and igniting a 14-2 Orange run. It was 31-13 at that point.

Early in the second half, with the Broncos down 16 and still harboring foolish hopes of a win, Grant went on a five-minute run that would make a nice job application for a prospective NBA employer.

Grant stole a pass and set up Trevor Cooney for a three-pointer. He drew a charge, leading to a C.J. Fair layup. He dunked again, inspiring a chorus of ooohs and aaaahs from the crowd. He hit two free throws, then sailed through the lane to tip in an Ennis miss.

He was going through the entire toolbox now. Finally, he made a layup with his left hand, giving the Orange their biggest lead of the day, 56-32.

“My back was fine,” said Grant, who shot 6 for 9 from the field and 4 of 4 from the line. “As I said before the game, I’m back at 100 percent. I’m playing as well as I was playing before. I can always do better. At the same time, I thought I did fine. I did well enough to help our team win.”

On Wednesday, Boeheim had talked about teams getting hot and finding themselves in the NCAAs. Watching SU’s opener, I sensed that he saw this coming, that the old coach suspected the real Orange would show up.

“He didn’t say it,” Grant said, “but I feel like we can figure it out. We’re a smart team. We knew we had to come out and play in the most important part of the season, which is now. We knew we had to come out and make a statement, and I felt like we did.”

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com