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New Names Pepper Orange Recruiting After EYBL

May 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Scouting the high school ranks can be a crapshoot. Until the last minute, there’s no telling whether a top prospect will hold his rank over the course of the year, where he’ll end up attending college, or how much he’ll grow physically. Every so often, evaluators will run into a case like Anthony Davis, who jetted from an unknown to the top of the rankings and a scholarship at Kentucky during his senior year. To take it one step further, Derrick Williams, after a pedestrian listing on the 2009 scouting rankings, is widely considered to be the #2 talent in next month’s draft following a superb sophomore season at Arizona. Alec Burks committed to Colorado, a school which will never be mistaken for a basketball power, and experienced a growth spurt that led to increased attention from high-major schools. Holding fast to his commitment, Burks, like Williams, enjoyed two standout collegiate seasons and could be looking at a lottery selection.

You never know how things will break, and maybe that’s one reason why not many fans choose not to get wrapped up in recruiting. As for me, I like to have an eye on who could be the next arrivals on SU’s campus. While I won’t live or die with any high schoolers’ word, the unpredictability always keeps things interesting.

Over the holiday weekend, 40 of the nation’s top AAU teams gathered in Los Angeles for the EYBL (Elite Youth Basketball League) championships. Of those 40, the top 24 go on to the Peach Jam in July, and if that event sounds familiar, it’s where incoming SU guard Michael Carter-Williams made a huge splash with his scoring ability. While DaJuan Coleman was in the gym, there are a couple of new players to keep tabs on after word came out that they have offers from Syracuse:

Jerami Grant, 2012 SF (6’8/210) – After Kris Joseph graduates, the SU will be in acute need of a wing to back up CJ Fair. If you’re a James Southerland backer, I’m sorry if I’ve offended you. Looking towards 2012-2013, the three spot figures to be as shallow as the other two frontcourt spots are deep. Grant exhibits many of the same traits as CJ Fair – a legit motor, excellent leaping ability and a powerful rebounder – but also needs work on his offensive game. He would also fit the recent trend of SU players having basketball in their pedigrees; Grant’s father, Harvey, and his uncle, Horace, had long, successful careers in the pros. To boot, his brother, Jerai, was one of the more underrated players in the ACC last season as a big man at Clemson.

Goodluck Okonoboh, 2013 SF (6’7/180) – It might be worth the scholarship just to see him play against God’s Gift Achiuwa of St. John’s. Hailing from Boston, Okonoboh has the kind of skill set that gives the impression of a frontcourt threat trapped in a wing’s body. He’s a great finisher, dunking whenever he can, which is something that SU fans haven’t seen much of ever since Hakim Warrick graduated. He also runs the floor very well, is a shot-blocking machine and has range out to about 12 feet. It’s tough not to get excited about his potential, especially if he isn’t finished growing yet, but since his recruitment doesn’t figure to heat up too much as he enters his junior season, I’ll have to tread carefully. Still, it can’t hurt that Okonoboh and Michael Carter-Williams share an AAU team.

With zero commitments from the class of 2012 and at least two scholarships at their disposal, Jim Boeheim and his staff have their work cut out for them. Bagging DaJuan Coleman figures to be at or near the top of the coaching staff’s recruiting checklist, but should they misfire, there are fortunately some backup options with the national class weighted heavily towards frontcourt players.

Orange Hoops In The Clear For APR Report Cards

May 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Like Oliver Luck, I’m going to take a break from the Big East meetings today and discuss something besides the conference schedule.

This week, the NCAA’s APR reports were released and Syracuse passed the threshold for good standing with a mark of 928 in the four-year period ending with the 2009-10 school year. For those who may be unfamiliar with the system, the Academic Progress Rate is a metric implemented by the NCAA in 2005 to motivate athletic programs to retain and graduate players. The numbers are calculated by taking the number of scholarships in a sport – that amount is 13 for basketball – and awarding one point per athlete for being academically eligible and one point for staying at the school. The APR is the number of total points on the roster at any given time divided by the number of points possible, multiplied by 1000 to eliminate the decimal you’ll get from that calculation.

The minimum APR score to keep in good standing with the NCAA is 925, so Syracuse just squeaked in. If a school scores below 925, they face NCAA sanctions in the form of pulling scholarships, which is what’s happening to Connecticut, and postseason furloughs, which will be felt by a handful of mid-majors in 2012. The reason the Orange’s APR mark is so close to that minimum is because the school is still paying for the early departures of Johnny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris, who left SU in poor academic standing in 2009. APR hits from players leaving early can be averted if they finish out the semester, as was the case with John Wall at Kentucky in 2010, but that wasn’t the case on the Hill.

One of the minutiae of the APR is that it’s always measured over the past four academic years, so players transferring or leaving school one year will have impacts that last longer than just the subsequent year. After Flynn, Devendorf and Harris left school, Jim Boeheim proactively took the two-scholarship hit for the 2009-10 season. For a couple of reasons, few seemed to notice. The first is because removing two scholarships from a 13-scholarship sport is a pretty inconsequential punishment when you think about the number of players who play significant roles. The second is because SU seemed to do just fine that season, setting up shop in the top five nearly all year and peaking at number one.

In my opinion, the APR, while well-intentioned, doesn’t work in practice. I’m all for making schools keep a watch on academics, but if, for example, a player transfers because he wants more playing time at another school or because the coach who recruited him moves on, the original school is going to take a hit in their APR if that player carries a GPA less than 2.6 (roughly a B-) on his way out. There was nothing Jim Boeheim could do to make his trio of players from 2009 finish school and prevent the hit. Additionally, non-power conference schools generally have fewer resources to devote to academic support than big-budget institutions, so the playing field isn’t level in that regard.

Still, as long as Syracuse stays on the good list, everything will be peachy.

Big East Higher-Ups Contemplate Scheduling

May 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Yesterday, I talked about the impact of the Big East’s expansion on the conference tournament. While it will be awhile before the conference adds teams beyond TCU, adjustments to the hoops season and postseason scheduling methodology with the current membership are topics of discussion at the annual meeting in Florida. Since Tuesday’s post, the coaches have proposed that the conference go the route of full inclusion at Madison Square Garden, as opposed to cutting back the number of teams taking part (a format similar to the nascent years of the most recent expansion), or holding a play-in game between the bottom two teams. I outlined the reasons why I liked the idea of a play-in game yesterday: The MSG pool becomes more competitive and, if the play-in game were to take place on a campus, the conference would receive ticket revenue from an additional game, but it looks like that proposal was defeated.

Perhaps the coaches, many of whom have roots that date back to the conference’s infancy, simply didn’t want a dramatic change like a play-in game, although it’s worth noting that Jim Boeheim is a critic of the current double-bye system. While the concept of a 12-team tournament would place a premium on getting in and give incentive to middling teams to perform better, there isn’t a conference in the BCS that leaves schools out of its tournament. The A-10 is the highest-profile conference that doesn’t include each school and while I could live with a smaller field and have before, the premise of holding a conference tournament that doesn’t involve each member doesn’t seem right. Had the Big East gone with that option, I would take it as a sign that the conference is too big moreso than the idea that whichever teams are left out aren’t good enough, not that I’m defending the likes of DePaul and South Florida. As it stands now, pending approval of the administrators, we’re looking at a conference tournament that involves more teams than some entire regions of the NCAA Tourney.

The addition of TCU also impacts the regular season, of course. Before I go any further, let me note that even though I accept the unbalanced nature of the schedule and fully understand that ESPN holds discretion over deciding the “mirror” games – the repeat matchups within the regular season – it’s always frustrated me that conference play is asymmetrical. It will probably always bother me to some degree unless it changes. I know an odd number of teams won’t make things any easier, but I feel that a divisional setup helps to give us an infinitely better gauge of the teams’ true abilities. While the divisions may alternate in superiority from time to time, I think the setup would ultimately make things more fair. If the Big East swells to 18 teams or 20, as Marinatto hasn’t ruled out, divisional alignment will be all the more necessary.

Digressing, with TCU coming aboard, there are reports that while conference play will stay at 18 games, the number of those mirror matchups will decrease from three to two for the 2012-2013 season. The impact is admittedly minimal for the upper-echelon schools like Syracuse, but the margin of error for the Cincinnatis and Marquettes of the conference will be more significantly reduced. Though the Orange isn’t likely to be notably affected, the evolution of the Big East is definitely worth tracking.

Big East Ponders Tournament Format Changes

May 24, 2011 Leave a comment

The Big East’s annual meetings are taking place this week in Florida, and while the biggest storyline is the tabling of further expansion in order to maximize television rights, the conference is also faced with deciding on a format for the Big East tournament when TCU joins up in 2012-2013.  As reported by Greg Auman, there are three different tournament setups facing decision-makers. Each has its flaws and advantages, so it will be interesting to see the way in which the member institutions’ leadership, from the coaches up to the athletic directors and presidents, handle the challenge of organizing an effective postseason for such a big conference.

The first solution proposed is to simply include every team from the conference, which is how the tournament has operated over the last three years. With an odd number of teams, the bracket would be shuffled in such a way that seeds 8 through 17 would square off on the first day, seeds five through seven starting on the second day, and the top four seeds finally playing on the third day. This layout would probably draw some eye rolls due to the sheer size, but after UConn won five games in five days in March, it’ll be hard to argue against keeping the tournament’s format as close to the current layout as possible.

Next is the suggestion that the Big East return to the pre-2009 format, where only the top 12 teams participate. If revenue wasn’t an object, I could get behind this presentation. The tournament would be stripped of snoozefests like Seton Hall-South Florida showdowns, and the conference’s top 12 teams are typically competitive enough to make nearly any matchup worthwhile. However, this looks to be the most unrealistic of the proposals, if only because it may as well be a written rule that postseason playoffs at the pro and collegiate levels can never shrink, unless you have a case like the Big 12 where teams were wooed away. No matter how unappealing the conference’s bottom teams are, when you take away games, you take away money.

The final option involves a little of each from the first two, and may be in the best financial interests of the conference. Under this platform, the bottom two teams would square off on campus in a play-in game (presumably on the floor of the 16th-place team), with the winner going on to join the remainder of the Big East at Madison Square Garden. The advantages are that the slate of games at the Garden become slightly more competitive, and the conference keeps the same number of MSG games while receiving additional, albeit probably modest revenue from the gate at the 16-17 play-in game. The Big East would have to add a travel day to accommodate the winner, but there don’t appear to be any further logistical issues. It may be a big step to take for such a deeply-rooted event, but in the end, it may be the most pragmatic choice.

No matter what, the Big East Tournament will continue to be must-see television. While Syracuse doesn’t figure to be significantly impacted by whichever format is implemented, the unique challenges of managing a 17-team conference bring about intrigue even when the action tails off at the end of the school year.

Syracuse to Face Familiar SEC Team in Challenge Play

May 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Syracuse’s non-con schedule has never been too much to write home about, though in recent seasons, it’s been improved. After all, SU isn’t to blame for Cal and North Carolina falling on their faces after the Orange’s breakout week in 2009 at Madison Square Garden. The same can be said for Michigan State and Michigan last season, who both had to scramble in February to eek out tourney bids. The Orange had a number of other teams on their 2010 non-con slate who were coming off of tournament appearances, but their seasons didn’t pan out, either.

Events like the SEC-Big East Challenge provide opportunities to see teams from high-major conferences square off against one another, with some games providing Big Dance-caliber competition. The model has been around for over 20 years, and believe it or not, in the late-eighties, Syracuse battled Duke in the Big East-ACC Challenge (h/t to Brian from VUHoops.com on the link). I’ve always looked forward to these kinds of games, because while the team generally improves from November to March, it’s nice to get an early-season appraisal of what may be in store.

When word surfaced Thursday afternoon that the Gators would battle Syracuse for the third time in five years, and the fourth time in seven seasons, I, like many others, rolled my eyes in frustration. It isn’t that Florida is a bad or uninteresting matchup, or because their players are unlikeable (they aren’t, best as I can tell), but because the repetition cheapens the value of the game in my eyes. This isn’t an entirely fair statement to make because of the timing of his injury last season, but Kris Joseph will have played his third career game against Florida before he plays his third career game against Pittsburgh, a conference team. His concussion kept him from playing at The Pete, but there’s something not quite right about that turn of events, especially considering that there isn’t a chance meeting like an NCAA Tournament game involved.

The powers that be missed out on a chance to pair the Orange with Kentucky, which may have been a game for the ages. Both teams figure to be highly-touted in the initial rankings, and the chance to rehash some of the 1996 championship game plotlines would make for a great narrative. A date with stout Vanderbilt or a Georgia or Alabama team on the rise would also make things fresh, but it’s hard to know what went on behind closed doors.

Putting the frustration of the news aside, I actually think this will be a very interesting game, with the potential to morph into a track meet. Florida is officially out of its post-title dynasty rut after an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA Tournament last season. The Gators’ top two scorers, Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, return and are quick guards, and their backcourt will get a sizable boost from a big-time shooter in freshman Bradley Beal. In addition, an old friend of Syracuse, Mike Rosario, will be eligible after sitting out his transfer year from Rutgers last season. While the season is a long ways away, SU’s deep group of guards will be able to run with Florida if the Gators want to make it that kind of game.

Another reason why I’m not getting too hung up about the repeat Florida game is because we’re still waiting to hear about the schedule for the NIT Season Tip-Off, which includes the Orange. Early (but unconfirmed) reports are that Syracuse will be matched up with Stanford, who could make some noise with the new-look Pac-12, and the two-game event should offer up a solid opponent to break up the monotony of mainstays like Cornell, Colgate, Siena and Canisius. And now, apparently, Florida.

What Gives With Boeheim’s Rotation, Anyway?

May 19, 2011 Leave a comment

The tagline at the top of the header references it in jest, but sometimes I wonder if it isn’t a more legitimate gripe. Yes, I know that as long as Boeheim is at the helm, he won’t gravitate away from one of the hallmarks that has made him tremendously successful. When you win as much as he has, you stick with what works, and as you get more experienced (say, 35 years deep), the chance of a paradigm shift plummets even more.

The advantages to using a smaller rotation are fairly cut-and-dry:

  • You give the most minutes to the best players.
  • More time affords players the more opportunities to establish consistency and positive momentum.
  • Roles are defined early on, which usually helps facilitate team chemistry. Not everyone on the roster will always agree with them, but if they’re wired correctly, it motivates them.
  • On the recruiting trail, blue-chip players are drawn to programs that are willing to give them a lot of playing time to up their exposure. Only once since the 1999-2000 season, which is as far back as the data go, has Syracuse failed to play at least three players more than 30 minutes per game.

There are also some drawbacks, though. When a rotation is cut off at a certain threshold, you’re inherently limiting some players from developing as fast as perhaps they could. Would Kris Joseph have had the All-American season in 2010-11 that many were hoping for if he played more in 2008-2009? Looking back, did the team need 30 minutes from Paul Harris, the player “blocking” Joseph, on a nightly basis that season?

Additionally, when a full-time starter is injured, his backup may be ill-prepared to step in. It can be a challenge to anticipate the possibility, and it’s probably one of the furthest things from Boeheim’s mind at any given point, but we saw this in 2010 when Arinze Onuaku went down and DaShonte Riley looked like a deer in headlights in the NCAA Tournament. There very well may have been costs to playing Riley more often in the regular season, but we’ll never know for sure.

Another residual effect some may cite is that Syracuse runs into attrition and players get disgruntled and transfer or become toxic in the SU locker room if they’re not getting the playing time they feel they deserve. While they may get more chances at other schools, the 7.5-man rotation has been in play at Syracuse as far as I can remember. It isn’t much to ask for players to know what they’re getting into before they commit, though.

I’m not saying that Jim Boeheim doesn’t give players fair shakes. We know that Mookie Jones is a one-trick pony because we’ve seen him chuck and chuck again in nearly 200 minutes of game action with little deviation (but it can be pretty to watch). We saw how poorly James Southerland struggled in the first half of last season, and as a result, he was an afterthought in the second half. If you’re good, you’ll play, and it isn’t always all-or-nothing. CJ Fair was an excellent spark off the bench last season, and if I were a betting man, I’d say that the motivation of more playing time keeps him wanting to perform at a high level.

Jim Boeheim’s methods never stop us from wondering. Every season, usually about ten games into the season, the blogosphere and Twitterverse lights up and wonders if this is finally the season where Jim Boeheim goes deeper into his bench without it being absolutely necessary and if there are ten players good enough to command minutes. I know I’ve been guilty of it a few times, especially in my early stages of Syracuse fandom, but every season, the answer is a resounding “no.”

We can project all we want. Right now, the starting lineup figures to consist of Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche, Kris Joseph, and two players from the group of Baye Moussa Keita, Fab Melo and Rakeem Christmas. Beyond that, not much else is certain, but on a team that figures to be one of the deepest in the Big East, and perhaps the country, I’m confident that the question that titled this post will come up somewhere.

Tempo-Free Flavor

May 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Ever since I started following sports as a little kid, I’ve been very intrigued by numbers. I collected baseball and basketball cards, and it was from this hobby that my interest in statistics took off. Knowing the number of points, rebounds or assists that a player put up gave me the feeling of being closer to a player, or at least understanding where he excelled. I knew, for instance, that an NBA player who averaged 15 points per game was pretty good, that most stars averaged 25 or more, and an elite few socred around 30 a night. The stats also came in handy because I lived in a city that didn’t have an NBA team, and still doesn’t to this day. For most of the season, my only pro basketball intake came in the form of highlights and agate data. Once the playoffs bled into the summer, and I could stay up later, I could finally sit down and watch all these guys from the glossy cardboard rectangles in the albums I kept in my room. While I enjoyed watching college basketball more, and still do, NCAA regulations limited the production of printed cards with college players’ likenesses, so I didn’t have the same kind of information available to me. It also didn’t help that the Internet hadn’t evolved to the point where access to stats was readily available.

The Internet eventually caught up and my craving was satisfied. A few years ago, though, somewhat on the heels of the statistical revolution in baseball, experts started turning up new data. Many people much smarter than me have cranked out mountains of research towards this objective, but the theme has changed from measuring performance per game to measuring performance per possession, accounting for the different paces at which different teams play. This phrase that characterizes this new realm of analysis is often referred to as “tempo-free.” To get up to speed, you can check out the blog’s glossary.

Tempo-free stats aren’t such a new development, though. Dean Smith, the longtime coach at North Carolina, routinely charted individual possessions, as did many other coaches. What is new is that increasing amount of data has been made available to us fans at places like StatSheet and Ken Pomeroy’s site. Over the last two seasons, I’ve immersed myself in some of this new data in an effort to understand what habits are prevalent among successful teams, and how teams can win despite performances that would normally cause them to lose. Let me show you what I mean.

The Orange’s win over UConn in Hartford last season was notable for a few reasons, all of which ironically don’t have much to do with stats at all:

  • It was a win that SU needed badly after dropping four straight games.
  • Syracuse hadn’t won on either of the Huskies’ home courts since 1999.
  • This was the first Syracuse game following the ridiculous point-shaving rumors.
  • It was Dion Waiters’ first game back after a stay in Jim Boeheim’s doghouse.

The game itself wasn’t prettier than any of those storylines, but the Orange escaped with a messy 66-58 victory. What was most interesting to me was that Syracuse won the game despite shooting a paltry 37.7% from the floor. That kind of a shooting percentage is normally liable to get you blown out of the gym. While it helped that Syracuse played tight defense in holding UConn to a similarly low shooting percentage, SU saved itself by being very effective in two other components of the game. The Orange turned the ball over just 13% of the time on offense, compared with its usual turnover rate of 18%. To provide some context, Wisconsin led the nation in turnover rate over the course of last season with a rate of 13.4%. Simply by holding onto the ball and not giving the Huskies extra chances, the Orange was able to offset its shooting woes.

The other area was in offensive rebounding rate. In that game, SU reeled in a very high percentage of their own misses, 42.5% percent of them, to be precise. The ability to to follow shots led to Syracuse scoring 19 second chance points, or roughly 25% of their scoring total from that game. Baye Moussa Keita was especially huge with 11 rebounds and three on the offensive glass.

There’s a perceived disconnect between the scouting types who prefer to evaluate based on what they watch and the stat-based community. While I lean toward the second of those groups, I think they can coexist to give us more comprehensive insight into how the game works. If you’ve ever tuned into an SEC game, you’ve heard Jimmy Dykes mention his “eye test,” a concept that I hate, but tempo-free stats have slowly bled into the telecasts and as long as the game will be played, there will be matchups whose outcomes fall outside the norm of traditional projections.