Sophomore Tyus Battle trying to keep Syracuse in the hunt

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) Tyus Battle has trained his focus on one thing since summer – a postseason experience different from the first he had last year as a freshman at Syracuse. In other words, playing in the NCAA Tournament, which is all that really matters around here.

Although those dreams took a big hit on Wednesday night when the Orange dropped a home game to North Carolina State, Syracuse (17-9, 6-7 Atlantic Coast Conference) still has opportunity ahead.

The Orange’s next three games are against Miami (on Saturday) and Duke on the road with North Carolina in between at home. They also play at Boston College and finish the season in the Carrier Dome against Clemson on March 3.

”We have three really tough games back to back to back, so those should be good opportunities for us,” Battle said. ”We’ve just got to get a couple more wins, get some upsets, make a push.”

On a team with a thin roster, it promises to be a struggle.

Syracuse finished 19-15 last season, the most losses in a season in coach Jim Boeheim’s Hall of Fame career. It ended with a home loss to Ole Miss in the second round of the NIT.

The Orange took a big hit after last season when star forward Tyler Lydon left for the NBA after two seasons and forward Taurean Thompson transferred to Seton Hall after a solid freshman year. That left Battle as the lone returning starter on a team with four freshmen and a redshirt freshman. He’s responded well to the challenge in spite of a heavy workload.

”He stepped in at the beginning and has embraced that (leadership role),” Boeheim said. ”He came off a really good freshman year where he really finished the year very strong. He showed what he could do. He went from being the third or fourth option on our team to the first option.”

The 6-foot-6 Battle leads the Orange and ranks third in the ACC in scoring (20.2). He’s also tied for second in the league with 118 made free throws, a testament to his driving style of play, and is shooting 82.5 percent from the foul line.

”I feel like I’ve been an improved scorer. I’m just trying to stay aggressive, be a leader,” Battle said.

Perhaps most impressive has been his playing time. Entering the weekend, Battle was the only player in the ACC to surpass 1,000 minutes and was averaging 40.2 minutes in league play. Through 26 games, his overall average was 38.7, the top figure in the nation, and he has played 40 minutes or more in seven straight games and 17 times overall.

Since 2009, former UConn star Kemba Walker sits atop the Division I list of minutes played in a season, 1,543 in 41 games in 2010-11. He finished with an average of 37.6 per game during that championship year.

Battle, with a wicked crossover dribble that has sent more than a few defenders sprawling, endeared himself to the hometown faithful as a freshman. He had 23 points in an upset of No. 9 Virginia, hit a buzzer-beating 3 to beat Clemson by a point on the road, and averaged just over 17 points in the final seven games.

Highlights this season include 29 points in an overtime victory at Georgetown in mid-December, a career-high 37 points in a double-overtime loss at No. 23 Florida State in January (he played all 50 minutes and forced the extra time with a last-second 3 in regulation), and last Sunday had 34 points – 11 of 13 from the foul line – in a critical home win over Wake Forest.

”The stat run he had was really impressive,” Wake Forest coach Danny Manning said. ”Any time you shoot one less free throw than a whole team you’re doing something pretty good.”

His considerable resume has landed Battle on the list of 10 finalists for the Jerry West Award, given annually to the player voted the best shooting guard in the nation.

”He’s so hard to guard,” Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said. ”He can score at all three levels and creates space really quickly when he wants to get a shot.”

Boeheim has relied on his backcourt of Battle and junior point guard Frank Howard, along with freshman forward Oshae Brissett, for the bulk of the offense, and there have been struggles as all three have logged heavy minutes. During one 10-game stretch at mid-season, Howard had 51 assists with 55 turnovers, and in conference losses to Wake Forest, Virginia, Georgia Tech and North Carolina State, Battle was 19 of 59 shooting (32.2 percent) and 3 of 24 (12.5) from behind the arc.

Nobody admits to fatigue, except perhaps in the heat of the moment, and nothing is going to blur Battle’s focus as the season winds down.

”We know that we have (five) games remaining in our regular season,” he said. ”We have to understand where we are. We’re right in the middle of everything.”

More AP college basketball coverage: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Kekis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Greek1947

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