While last season’s games against Georgetown and the surprisingly deep run Syracuse made through the Big East Tournament drew the curtain on the Orange’s time in the league, part of me still didn’t feel like the Orange were headed to the ACC. It just hadn’t hit me, that was until Monday afternoon, when the conference released its basketball schedule. The dates aren’t set, but the opponents are, so it’s still a nice opportunity for some discussion, especially if you happen to still be on edge about C.J. Fair’s future.
If you’re a local fan (or if you aren’t but have the means to make a trip or two to campus), you’re probably pretty happy with how the schedule shakes out. Duke and Miami, in addition to Pittsburgh and Boston College, will make trips to the Carrier Dome as home-and-home partners. On top of that, SU will host North Carolina, NC State and Notre Dame, plus Clemson and Georgia Tech in its first ACC season. On the road, SU will face the four home-and-home partners in addition to Maryland, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Virginia and Wake Forest.
While the Orange will make trips to some of the tougher environments in the league, it’s hard to overemphasize the benefit of facing the top-shelf teams like Duke and North Carolina at home. The Orange are facing some significant movement within their roster, replacing no fewer than three starters and adding five freshmen (more on that later) as well as a transfer in Mike Gbinije. It’s a small break, but in a league that eschews the double round-robin format due to the big membership, any home game against a high-level opponent should be relished, especially as players adjust and hopefully thrive in new roles.
The road schedule, on the other hand, is slightly more balanced. The Orange will make their first ever trip to Cameron Indoor Colosseum, which figures to be as strange as it will be exciting, plus stops in College Park, Pittsburgh and Maryland, as far as tough road venues go. Without getting too ahead of myself, Miami will have a very different look after winning the league in surprising fashion next season, so I have to stop just short of including them among the more challenging road opponents.
While you can’t do this in practice, if you renamed SU’s home slate “Group A” and the road slate “Group B” and scheduled all the games on a neutral court, I’d say that in that vacuum, “Group A” would be the tougher set of opponents. Yes, that’s a worthless exercise, but it demonstrates that at this early stage in the offseason, I’m happy with how the slate shook out. We’ll be able to discuss the schedule in greater depth once the dates come out and we know the whole sequence, but as it is, I’m insanely excited despite these games being eight months away.
On another note, some transfer news came out later on Monday that could involve Syracuse as the offseason whirls on. Marshall point guard DeAndre Kane announced his intention to graduate and pursue a fifth year of eligibility next season at a different program. If the process sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same route that led Greg Paulus to play football for the Orange in 2009. Though Tyler Ennis is as firmly entrenched as SU’s starting point guard as an incoming freshman can be, there’s little depth behind him at the position, and that might be putting it lightly. While I don’t view the transfer landscape as the “circus” that many writers believe it to be, my philosophy has always been that if you think there’s someone out there that can help you next season, I think there’s an obligation to explore the possibility.
Kane is physical at 6’4 and 195 pounds, and while he wasn’t an efficient scorer in Huntington (he’s a career 41.4% shooter from the field with a 27.5% mark from distance and has declined in free throw proficiency each season), he played a huge role in the Thundering Herd’s offense as a distributor last season, averaging seven assists per game – good for ninth in the country – and scoring 15.1 points per contest. Considering his talent and the lack of point guard depth behind Ennis, it would make a lot of sense for the Orange to pursue Kane as a backup floor general. Kane would likely have to accept a reduced role, which could be a big factor after playing a whopping 37 minutes per game last season. On the other hand, if he’s up for it, he could see time for a major conference team and provide some stability for a contender.
SU’s interior struggles, already under close scrutiny with the team missing James Southerland, were dealt another blow Monday night when it was announced that DaJuan Coleman will have left knee surgery and miss about four weeks. In any other year, the absence of a starter in name only wouldn’t carry that big an impact, though it wouldn’t be insignificant, either. However, with Southerland already out, the Orange’s options inside are shrinking, and the team will need Jerami Grant and Baye Keita to make big leaps if it is to stay on top of the Big East.
While we don’t know who will start in Coleman’s place, it’s important to keep in mind that it probably doesn’t all that much – all you have to do is look at how SU’s freshmen bigs have been handled in recent years. On the other hand, with such a depleted depth chart, it’s tough to see anyone getting fewer than Coleman’s eight minutes per game in league play. Grant’s performance in four games since Southerland was sidelined has warranted a bigger opportunity, and he’ll have to continue to grow up in a hurry.
Since being thrust into a more prominent role, Grant has been very good, especially considering his youth. With Southerland out, Grant has averaged ten points and five rebounds in about 30 minutes per game and has committed just two turnovers in his last four games. He’s been surprisingly aggressive, which has fed his confidence, and he’s even showed some range and a willingness to simply take what the defense has given him. He’s also improved from the free throw line.
The biggest knock on him in his limited experience in a full-time role is that he’s gotten into a little bit of foul trouble, but it’s also important to keep in mind that he’s been whistled for four more fouls on the road than at home, so while he’ll have to be more careful, given SU’s dire depth problems, I don’t think it’s a problem that will be as pervasive as some might think. What I worry about more with Grant is that his size and skill set are a little too similar to C.J. Fair’s and the two don’t provide enough range to make opponents respect the perimeter threat of anyone apart from SU’s guards. Regardless, I think Grant’s increased role can be a good thing for SU in the short term, made even better when Coleman returns, and better still if Southerland is cleared to play again.
The other angle of Coleman’s absence is that it means a more prominent role for Keita, which I’m not nearly as excited about. While he’s had a few decent games, he’s entrusted with such little responsibility that it’s hard to help but get very frustrated when he can’t even do the things he’s counted on and commits touch fouls and doesn’t collect the ball, whether it’s on a pass, rebound or 50/50 chance. I’ve never pictured Keita as someone who can develop into a key offensive contributor, but it still seems galling to me that even in a pinch like the one Syracuse is in, the best rotation still involves him coming off the bench. Again, with such a thin depth chart, he’ll continue to get opportunities, but I fear he’s too much of a known quantity at this point for any rational fan to expect more than what we’ve seen to this point.
There’s also the matter of SU’s schedule to consider. The team plays eight games in the month that Coleman figures to miss. Four are at home and four are on the road. On the surface, the slate doesn’t present many teams that look much better than even a depleted Orange team, but the conference has proven to be anything but predictable and the team will still be pushed hard, especially in games at Pittsburgh and Marquette and at home against Notre Dame and Georgetown.
The Orange’s inside presence was already being tested on a regular basis. While Coleman hasn’t played up to expectations, his absence will still be felt because of the compounding effect it will have on SU’s interior. However, if he returns on schedule, the experience gained by Jerami Grant could be a huge asset for Syracuse in March, even if Southerland can’t return to action.
It’s only been two weeks, but in a slight scheduling oddity, Syracuse and Villanova meet again, though this time in Philadelphia. I hear a few Syracuse players over the years have some connections to the area.
Since January 12, the Wildcats have been all over the board, losing to Pittsburgh and Providence, but upsetting Louisville at home just three days after the Orange knocked them off. While the results have been wild, not much has changed about Villanova’s profile in the last two weeks. Despite efforts to shift their offensive focus inside and shake the still-standing perception as a perimeter team, the Wildcats still need good shooting from long distance to win games. You may have seen the stat float around that ‘ Nova is undefeated when it hits at least six threes, but to be more precise, accuracy plays a bigger role. Jay Wright’s team is 7-0 when it hits at least 35% of its threes and 4-7 when they fail to hit that mark. Could Villanova win Saturday while going, say, 6-20 from deep? Maybe, but it would take uncharacteristically strong performances in other departments to do so.
It would start with holding onto the ball, a season-long problem for Villanova. ‘Nova hasn’t posted a turnover rate below 20% in essentially a month, when it beat NJIT by ten on December 28. While the Orange have definitely been ball-hawks, it’s been a slightly different story as of late, as SU didn’t generate many turnovers off neither Louisville nor Cincinnati, though to be fair, throughout the fist half on Monday, Cincinnati rushed shots so quickly that the Orange didn’t have many opportunities to swarm.
The other main area from which to gain chances is on the offensive glass, where the Wildcats have been horrific since they left the Carrier Dome with a loss earlier this month. In that game, Villanova reeled in 18 of their 37 misses, which believe it or not was a better showing against SU than even Cincinnati, who picked up 43% of their bricks. Both are embarrassing rates to consider if you’re a Syracuse fan, but the Wildcats have fallen off a cliff since then. Since netting those 18 offensive rebounds on Syracuse, Villanova collected just one, nine and six offensive boards against Pittsburgh, Providence and Louisville, respectively. That’s right - the Wildcats have fewer rebounds in its last three games combined than it had against the Orange in the last meeting. Whether that’s more of an indictment of the Orange’s defensive rebounding struggles or ‘Nova’s offensive rebounding struggles is anyone’s guess, but the likely answer is a combination of both.
That category, combined with SU’s turnovers, has been the culprit of the last few nailbiters. Amazingly, the Orange are still 7.3 percentage points better on the defensive glass than they were all last year, so while I don’t think defensive rebounding is as big a concern as many are making it out to be, it’s hard to deny the argument that if the Orange could net those extra possessions and use them to key their potent transition offense, the last few games wouldn’t have been so stressful to watch.
I look for rebounding to a vital role once again; here’s hoping the Orange can do a better job cleaning up, and if they can’t, hope for more things to go right to keep the scales in their favor from wire to wire.
SU’s biggest game of the season to date comes Saturday afternoon at the Yum! Center in Louisville with the Orange squaring off against the top-ranked Cardinals. As you probably know by now, James Southerland will be out again for the Orange as his academics continue to be under investigation. Coming into the season, if you had told me James Southerland wouldn’t be able to play against the Cardinals, I would have said that it wouldn’t be a huge deal, though it certainly would put the Orange in a bind, as Louisville wasn’t expected to field an offense to match its lockdown defense. It’s a much different story now. Not only does Louisville’s defense remain a steel trap, but its offensive efficiency is ranked 14th in the country. While Southerland has been streaky, he was enough of a threat all season that opponents needed to respect his scoring potential as well as his ability to stretch defenses to the point where lanes were more easily accessible. Trevor Cooney and Brandon Triche can hit threes, but like Southerland, they haven’t done so consistently, and there doesn’t appear to be a single person who can pick up the slack by himself. It’ll have to be by committee.
Jerami Grant filled in tremendously against Villanova. He was able to slash, grab rebounds and even shoot a little bit. Unfortunately, Louisville couldn’t be much worse a matchup for SU’s freshman. The Cardinals’ interior defense is ranked so highly because it forces other teams into bad shots, whether it’s the angle, the spot on the floor or the threat of the shots being blocked. I’m still very high on Grant and last week’s game should keep him confident, but it would be very surprising to me to see him put two digits in the scoring column and be the difference.
If the Orange are to overcome Southerland’s absence, they’ll likely have to do it from the perimeter, and it will probably have to be a threat by committee with Triche, Carter-Williams and Cooney hitting enough from distance to force Louisville to hedge out, making the paint more vulnerable. The backcourt will also have to get it done on defense. Luckily, that doesn’t figure to be quite as tall a task, as the Cardinals are shooting just 32.6% from distance on the season, though they’ve been a shade better since conference play started.
It almost goes without saying, but SU also needs to win the turnover battle, but I actually like the Orange’s chances in that department even though the Cardinals force more turnovers than every team in the country but VCU. See, in conference play, the Orange have turned the ball over just 15% of the time, a rate that is second only to Notre Dame, whereas Louisville has turned the ball over 17.6% of the time, a rate which is worse than Pittsburgh, Marquette, and yes, even DePaul when solely factoring in conference play. Also, and this will sound cynical, but the pace of the game and Louisville’s frontcourt talent level will likely render DaJuan Coleman irrelevant. In fact, it’s a good bet that the first power dribble from the freshman big man will elicit a quick hook from Jim Boeheim.
G Russ Smith – 23 points on 10-20 shooting against UConn Monday
F Chane Behanan – 16 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, two steals against UConn
G Peyton Siva – Averaging 14 points over his last two games while shooting 12-18
C Gorgui Dieng – Averaging 14 rebounds over his last four games
No one. They’re the #1 team in the country for a reason.
There’s little doubting the fact that James Southerland’s absence gives Syracuse perhaps the thinnest margin for error they’ll have all season. They’re going on the road against arguably the best team in the country and while they’ve had a week to adjust in practice, SU has played just one game without him. However, it’s not the nightmare scenario that some are making it out to be, and Louisville does have a few blemishes that I think the ‘Cuse can exploit. Whether it will be enough is something we won’t learn until Saturday.
Three games into conference play and the Orange are unblemished in the Big East, and have a pair of early road wins to hang their hats on. While none of SU’s conference opponents figure to finish in the top half, there haven’t been many such battles to this point elsewhere in the league, so SU is hardly alone. Both South Florida and Providence played the Orange closer than most fans would like to expect, and a few wrinkles have been exposed. Fortunately, it’s still January and there’s still time to straighten out the kinks.
In Villanova, SU faces a streaking but still mediocre squad. The Wildcats have reeled off seven straight wins, but against a mostly fluffy schedule. Early on, Villanova had some nice resume opportunities, but lost to Alabama, La Salle and Temple. Their best win is over Saint Joseph’s, but even they’re nothing to write home about, so if Villanova is to return to the NCAA Tournament, it will have to get there with a strong performance in conference play. They’re up against the wall to begin with, but the Wildcats caught a very tough scheduling break with the front end of its schedule. In the space of the next three weeks, Villanova’s slate consists of two games against Syracuse, tilts against Pittsburgh, Louisville and Notre Dame and a road game at Providence thrown in for good measure. For a team that skews towards the young side, the Wildcats would probably like to have more time to develop before going up against the powerhouses of the league, but they just don’t have that luxury this season.
The Wildcats’ big men, like the rest of the team, have played better as of late, but offense has largely been a struggle down low. JayVaughn Pinkston has started to emerge as a consistent scoring threat, averaging 17 points over his last six contests. Pinkston relies on a lot of close looks and uses his 260-pound frame to both create space and draw contact despite standing just 6’7″. Pinkston ranks second in the country in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, but on the whole, he hasn’t lived up to the potential that was dropped on his shoulders when he was named a McDonald’s All-American back in 2010, though that’s not entirely his fault. Elsewhere, at 6’10″ and 230 pounds, Daniel Ochefu has showed some promise, but he’s still a freshman big man in the Big East and we all know what that means. Rakeem Christmas will have to do a good job of defending without fouling, something he occasionally struggles with, to neutralize Pinkston.
The biggest reason why Villanova seems to give the Orange more trouble than most teams is because Jay Wright not only knows how to beat a zone, but he also usually has the talented shooters to pull it off. Whether it’s Scottie Reynolds, Corey Stokes, Corey Fisher or Dominic Cheek, it seems like there’s always been someone to give SU fits from deep. But after a disappointing campaign last season that saw the Wildcats finish 14th in the Big East in three-point percentage, they look like they have regained some of the stroke that made them so competitive in the 2000′s. Ryan Arcidiacono, a hometown guard around whom Wright is building the team, is a 34% shooter from three-point land, while James Bell leads the team at a 39.1% clip. Darrun Hilliard and Archraf Yacoubou also shoot it well enough that they have to be considered threats. To this point in conference play, SU has needed time to adjust to hot shooters like Eli Carter and Bryce Cotton, but it would be nice to see the Orange respect that part of the scouting report from the opening tip rather than after the first five or ten minutes.
Daniel Ochefu – Scored a career-high 12 points to go along with eight rebounds in Wednesday’s win over USF
Ryan Arcidiacono – Averaging 18 points over his last three games while shooting 42.8% from beyond the arc
JayVaughn Pinkston – Averaging 17.2 points over his last six games
Mouphtaou Yarou – Notched a 16/13 double-double in Wednesday’s win over USF.
James Bell – Shooting 35.7% from the floor over his last six games
Darrun Hilliard – Shooting 34.7% from the floor and 29.4% from beyond the arc for the season
The Bottom Line
The outcome of Saturday’s game, not surprisingly, will hedge on the performance of Villanova’s shooters. While the Wildcats have the arsenal to make the Orange pay for not closing out, SU opponents have made just 28% of their threes all season. Hitting threes isn’t simply important for Villanova to put points on the board, but they’ll also need to do so to open up opportunities for Pinkston and Mouphtaou Yarou. Villanova also rebounds well offensively, though I haven’t watched them enough to know if it’s simply from all the long rebounds that come from so many three-point attempts or if they’re just as adept at corralling the misses from inside as they are on the outside, so I’m interested in seeing how that aspect of the game shakes out. Also, for a team that shoots their fair share of threes, Villanova gets to the line quite a bit, and all of their regulars are shooting at least 65% from the stripe.
The Orange could use a more complete effort on offense after a couple troublesome performances on the road. While the team has seen some very strong outings from C.J. Fair and Rakeem Christmas as of late, Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams have been a touch too unsteady for my tastes, to say nothing of James Southerland’s roller-coaster season. The home court should help in that regard, but only one of Villanova’s last six opponents has topped the 65-point mark, so the Orange need to return to their habits of setting screens, freeing up opportunities and not forcing bad shots. On the other side of the court, while Villanova has shifted some of its focus back to the post, it still relies heavily on its guards to produce. Nonetheless, Saturday should be an interesting test as Rakeem Christmas, Southerland and Baye Keita (ok, hopefully Coleman for more than a few minutes) square off against Pinkston, Yarou and Ochefu.
Update: Before the game, it was announced that James Southerland will be ineligible until further notice, likely because of academics. Obviously, Southerland has played a major role for Syracuse despite coming off the bench. I’ll get into the pros and cons of Jim Boeheim running such a laissez-faire program, but on the court, Jerami Grant will likely be thrust into a more significant reserve role in Southerland’s stead. I’ve been a huge Grant fan for awhile, and I’m excited to see how he does, but at the same time, I’m not sure he’s ready for such a big adjustment so early. I think he’s versatile enough to give help defense on Villanova’s forwards and guard their shooters with his long arms, but I’m slightly worried about his inexperience being exposed when he has to play for longer stretches.
I enjoy college basketball every step of the way, but I’m especially giddy when conference play opens up. Despite winning 12 of its 13 games, Orange have run hot, cold and lukewarm at different points of the season to this point, so it will be interesting to see how the team looks in its last first game of Big East play tonight against Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights have a different look and feel to them than in seasons past. Whereas we’re used to seeing Rutgers try to gut out tough, physical matchups with scores in the 50′s, 60′s or low 70′s, Mike Rice has his team playing with greater efficiency on offense, though it’s come at a cost of fielding a leakier defense than usual. Rutgers enjoyed a solid but unimpressive non-conference slate, notching wins against Princeton and Iona, but slipped up in its biggest opportunity against a pretty good Mississippi team. The Scarlet Knights bounced back nicely from an opening night loss to St. Peter’s, but went 9-1 after that and scored at least 79 points in six of their 11 games. They’ll still fight an uphill battle to get into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991, and seem to always struggle at the Carrier Dome, but this should be the most competitive team Rutgers has fielded in the last ten years or so.
The reason why the Scarlet Knights should get some respect is a dynamic, young backcourt led by Eli Carter and Myles Mack. Despite being in just their seconds years, the two combine to average over 30 points and 5 assists per game, and Mack is right up there with James Southerland as one of the conference’s top long-range shooters. The Scarlet Knights have definitely benefited from letting Carter and Mack handle the scoring responsibilities rather than relying on unskilled bigs like Gilvydas Biruta and Dane Miller to shoulder the load offensively as they did in the past.
Rutgers’ vulnerability can be traced to its frontcourt, which is a bit of an odd departure because we’re used to seeing the Scarlet Knights being a team that battles down low and forces opponents to operate from the inside out rather than from the outside into the paint. Wally Judge has his battles with foul trouble, a problem that has plagued him even going back to his time at Kansas State, but it hasn’t been as big a hindrance as it has been in the past for him. He’s committed at least four fouls in five of his 11 games, but when he can stay on the court, he’s a good bet to make a run at a double-double. He also has to do a better job holding onto the ball for Rutgers to be successful.
Kadeem Jack is another Rutgers big man who is talented, but has struggled with consistency. As we’ve all come to expect, it’s very difficult for guys with size to be successful as underclassmen in the Big East, but Jack has played well, if only sporadically. Rice would probably like to see him do a better job attacking the glass – at 6’9″, Jack tallies just 3.7 boards per game – but like Judge, the Orange will have to respect his size from a matchup standpoint.
G Eli Carter – Averaging 18.5 points over his last four contests, with just two turnovers in his last two games
F Dane Miller – Posted 18 points and 5 assists (both season-highs) in Rutgers’ last game against Rider
F Wally Judge – Averaging 10 points and six rebounds over his last three games.
G Myles Mack – Scored just one point in Rutgers’ win over Rider after scoring at least 13 in each of the team’s previous nine games.
G Jerome Seagears – Shooting just 26.8% from the floor and 20% from three-point range this season
G Mike Poole – 7-21 FG over his last four games
F Malick Kone – Has scored just 21 points in seven games after erupting for 17 against Boston University
Tonight’s game should be a solid test for Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche and Trevor Cooney as the Orange continue look to build on an excellent showing against Central Connecticut State on Sunday. Down low, I don’t expect Rakeem Christmas and Dajuan Coleman to look great against a formidable back line, but it’s important that they don’t completely disappear, as Judge, Jack and senior Austin Johnson will have a clear size advantage against Baye Moussa Keita.
It may be worth noting that whereas the Orange have had just two days to prepare for the Scarlet Knights, Rutgers hasn’t played since December 28. Whether that advantage in prep time will be noticeable is anyone’s guess, but it could be a factor as Rutgers looks to pull the upset. There aren’t many backcourts in the Big East better than the Scarlet Knights’ duo, but unfortunately for them, Syracuse has one of them. I look for SU to win a battle of very good guards, but it will be closer than many SU fans would normally expect.
There’s no mistaking the fact that the Orange are in a rut offensively. Dating back to the second half of the Detroit game, SU has looked, listless, lost, pressed, woeful and just about any other adjective you want to throw out there. The most alarming thing about the Orange’s current slump is that it isn’t limited to just one area of the game, but if you were to rank all the problems in order of importance, it’d be tough to argue against SU’s recent shooting.
You just can’t dress up a 40% mark from the floor, 15% from beyond the arc and 58% from the free throw line – SU’s performance over their last five halves of ball. This from a team with four players averaging double figures in the scoring department. Hitting shots of all kinds has been a major issue as of late.
In the Orange’s best games, their offense has fed heavily off their defense, relying on defensive rebounds and turnovers. However, despite turning Alcorn State over on a staggeringly high 46% of its possessions, SU failed to crack even 60 points against a SWAC team. If you watched the Temple game, you know how badly the Orange’s defense struggled, and in addition to the missed free throws, it may have been the difference.
The Orange have another chance to get back on the right track this afternoon against Central Connecticut State. The “other” Blue Devils have an interesting blueprint as a team. They can get out and run, but they do a very good job holding onto the ball even though they play at the nation’s 29th-highest pace. CCSU’s shooting isn’t anything to sneeze at either, as they sport the NEC’s third-best field goal and three-point percentages. The Blue Devils are also nails from the stripe, hitting 80% of their attempts, good for third in the country. The Orange will have to respect leading scorer Kyle Vinales and gunner Adonis Burbage.
Another reason why it’s important for SU to snap out of it offensively is because Central Connecticut State plays a very short rotation. Four starters average at least 33 minutes a game, and Vinales has sat for just six minutes all season. Not a single bench player for the Blue Devils plays more than 15 minutes per game. Suffice it to say they would love to have the kind of sixth men that the Orange have fielded in recent years.
Defensively, CCSU really struggles. Only eight teams in the country allow a greater percentage of threes to find nylon and the Blue Devils are equally poor on both the offensive and defensive glass, giving their shooters a razor-thin margin for error. Considering their limitations in second-chances, the fact that they’re second in their conferences in scoring says a lot about their offense, but it also says something about the quality of teams they’ve played. They were blown out by Indiana, but have played just one other team from the KenPom top 100 (La Salle, who they beat by 7).
SU will be a heavy favorite this afternoon, and I look for them to break the habits that have surfaced over the last two weeks and get off to a fast start on offense for a change. The Orange have such a big size advantage that the Blue Devils should struggle to get many clean looks inside and will be forced to rely on their perimeter shooting, where the Orange’s defense has held steady all season. A win won’t wipe away the doubts that have been raised about this team, but it would be nice to close the non-con schedule on a positive note.