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Kris Joseph: First Team All-American?

September 28, 2011 Leave a comment

As October approaches, the first signs of the season approaching are coming. This week, we’ve already seen the initial announcement about Midnight Madness and some news on Fab Melo’s never-ending court case. There was also Tuesday’s announcement that the Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook named Kris Joseph to its Preseason All-American team. This surprised many fans, even myself.

I was hoping for big things after Joseph’s terrific turn as sixth man in 2009-10 and the transition was thought to be seamless heading into the 2010-11 season when Wes Johnson jumped to the NBA. Although Joseph led the team in scoring last season and added a three-pointer to his arsenal, he didn’t shoot the ball as accurately as he did in his sophomore year (both from the field as well as the line) and his rebounding numbers took a dip as well. As a result, the hype cooled and the result is the kind of skepticism that leaves me raising a brow at the idea of Joseph being one of the nation’s five best players.

While one could look at Joseph’s increase in playing time the last two seasons, see a drop-off in shooting percentage and draw the conclusion that the bigger workload hindered his performance, that isn’t altogether the case. One thing I found interesting when doing research for this post was that Joseph’s effective field goal percentage* in the 16 games last season when he played at least 35 minutes was 6% better than the mark in the 18 games when he played fewer than 35 minutes.

*If you’re unfamiliar with the stat, effective field goal percentage is a very similar calculation to the traditional field goal percentage, but it accounts for the difference in value between a made three-pointer and a made two-point shot.

That kind of performance under such a high demand for stamina is one thing that leads me to believe that Joseph can make the leap many thought he would this time last season. There’s a chance that Jim Boeheim will lean on Joseph to stay on the court even more than his 32 minutes per game in his junior campaign. Playing an offensive stud like Hakim Warrick, Gerry McNamara or Jonny Flynn for as long as they can handle it physically is a tradition in Boeheim’s system. The preparation for Joseph taking on that kind of playing time is indicative in the reports that his summer was spent with an emphasis on conditioning over playing, unlike the cases of Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine, who participated in skills academies and international competition.

I’d be surprised if any additional publications proclaim Kris Joseph as a first-team All-American. The prospects of the NBA locking out  kept a big chunk of young talent in college, in addition to the more experienced talent already in the game. Joseph’s performance this season might be the biggest factor in determining just how far the Orange go in 2012, but if he delivers, he has a decent shot at getting the individual accolades players dream of. At the end of September, that’s one big if.

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How Successful Can Syracuse Be With Scoop and Brandon Leading?

September 22, 2011 1 comment

Now that realignment has stopped paused, today is as good a time as any to return to the here-and-now and the short-term future instead of focusing on what things will look like three years from now. Now, if I were a betting man, I’d put money on Syracuse and Pitt leaving the Big East sometime before the 2014 swan song that John Marinatto favors, but let’s not forget that following the team itself is what gives rise to all the hubbub over realignment in the first place.

Ever since Syracuse was bounced by Marquette in the NCAA Tournament, local, regional and national writers have been heaping praise on SU’s guard core for the 2011-12 season. Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche had busy summers, attending skills academies and representing their country in assorted international play. There’s faith in Dion Waiters after he atoned for his lip service to Jim Boeheim by netting a career-high scoring total in the tournament loss to the Golden Eagles, and Michael Carter-Williams performed in a number of high-school all-star games after committing to the school.

For added measure, hopes are pinned on Trevor Cooney to help shore up the lack of a perimeter punch. All five are known much more for their offense than for their defense, and  they’re being counted on to provide the bulk of the team’s scoring. It may not be all fair, because the team got zilch out of Fab Melo and Baye Keita, SU’s returning post players, last year, but it is what it is. The fact remains that when you read blurbs about SU being in the top five to begin the next season, or top ten after UConn added Andre Drummond, you don’t hear about Melo or Keita realizing their potential, you read mostly about the Orange riding Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche’s leadership and scoring capability deep into the tournament, with a mention of Kris Joseph’s potential as a senior thrown in.

Syracuse has featured scoring guards prominently in recent years, but  is relying so heavily on offensive production from the backcourt really the best recipe in Jim Boeheim’s system? To answer this question, I took a look at SU’s NCAA Tournament teams over the last ten years, and the guard rotation that Boeheim fielded in each season. Playing time factors in this selection, as I wanted to look at guards who played at least 15 minutes per game.* The following table shows the guard rotations for each season, how much they scored, and how much of the team’s scoring they accounted for.

*While Demetris Nichols was a tweener, splitting time at forward and guard spots, he was mostly a wing and played in the back of the zone on defense, which is why you won’t find him included. Josh Pace, who was mostly a small forward, stepped into the guard spot during the 2004 season when Billy Edelin left the team for personal reasons, so he is included.

The results are definitely mixed, but one thing is clear. In SU’s most successful seasons of the last ten years, the team wasn’t very dependent on the guards to put points on the board. In 2003, when the Orange finished 30-5 and was crowned as national champions, and in 2010, when the team streaked to another 30-5 record only to see their tournament hopes collapse with Arinze Onuaku’s quadriceps, the backcourt provided less than 42% of the team’s scoring.

That doesn’t mean that SU can’t be successful with a more formidable guard rotation.  The 2004 team powered heavily by Gerry McNamara, Billy Edelin and Josh Pace – who played guard when Edelin left the team – packed a punch even while Hakim Warrick posted one of the best individual seasons ever as a forward.  The 2009 trio of Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins pulled Syracuse into the tournament after a two-year hiatus and led a potent offense that finished the season ranked 11th in the nation in scoring and first in the conference in that category. They were also 21st in the country in offensive efficiency, a category which neutralizes the pace of offense.

The data also show that Syracuse won’t necessarily enjoy a terrific season when a complementary guard core like the 2006 team falls flat. The backcourt was dry beyond Gerry McNamara’s production and Eric Devendorf’s good start to his career. Diehards remember the remarkable Big East Tournament run fondly and can recall where they were as if it was their wedding day. However, that team struggled to a 7-9 finish in the regular season, and part of why that conference tournament run is so memorable is because Syracuse would have hosted additional home games if it the team didn’t win four games in a row by a combined nine points.

It takes all sorts of combinations of frontcourt and backcourt production to make a successful team. That’s part of what makes the game fun, and there are certainly other factors beyond simply scoring. After all, we’re only looking at one side of the ball and roughly half of the team’s offensive production. But when SU has enjoyed its best years, they’ve been from squads with greater offensive emphasis on the frontcourt than the backcourt. Can Scoop, Brandon and Company buck the trend?

Jumping Ship The Right Move For Syracuse

September 19, 2011 Leave a comment

And I thought Jerami Grant committing to Syracuse would be the biggest news of the weekend.

As you assuredly know by now, SU and Pittsburgh finally grew sick enough of John Marinatto’s refusal to embrace the changing landscape of college sports and decided to carve out the future for themselves. I was pleasantly surprised at the speed with which the deal was completed and made official. The ACC’s 2003 raid of the Big East was far messier than administrators would have preferred, though I understand the irony in that they control the spread of news with their comments and actions. More recently, Texas A&M’s transition to the SEC was rumored for several weeks (if not months), and other potential moves continue to lead sportswriters to research Board of Directors and Regents meeting agendas on a regular basis. By the day, dozens of realignment theories were put forth to the point where no combination of moves would be unexpected, but that doesn’t make the reality of the shift any less intriguing.

In the latest poaching, very few smoke signals emitted from the schools involved as well as the ACC itself, simply the breaking news that Syracuse and Pittsburgh had applied for ACC membership, which came late Friday night. As CBS’ Gary Parrish pointed out, you don’t apply for membership if you don’t expect to be accepted, and when no one involved denied the initial report Saturday, the move became inevitable. It was made official less than two days after the first legitimate talks were reported, and if you’re an administrator for Syracuse, Pittsburgh or the ACC, you have to be pretty happy about that.

And that’s where I have to give Daryl Gross credit. Sure, fans like to poke fun at his cheesy New York City marketing efforts and his infatuation with the spotlight, but he made a legacy-defining move over the weekend that is also in the best interests of the school from which he draws his paycheck. He saw what many of us noticed, that Marinatto’s inaction was causing him to lose an expensive game of chicken over television rights, and confidence among his member institutions waned. Critics may say that the inaction was partially a product of Pittsburgh’s greediness after its leadership shook its head at ESPN’s offer in the spring, but the job of a conference commissioner is first and foremost to lead, and as Marinatto failed to provide stability in a time where it was needed the most, ‘Cuse and Pitt explored their options.

Another impressive facet of the move is that Syracuse won’t have to sacrifice geographical sanity in order to survive. Miami’s location, 1,400 miles from the SU campus, may still be a headache, but it’s something Syracuse dealt with during Miami’s membership in the Big East. The long trips continued when USF, not exactly a stone’s throw away 1,300 miles from Syracuse,  joined the Big East in 2005. If the Texas schools pull off a move to the Pac-12, Syracuse’s trips to South Florida will look like mere commutes by comparison.

Some are lamenting the fading of rivalries and tradition in favor of the rat race that college athletics has devolved into, and they certainly have merit. If Georgetown and Syracuse continue to play once separated (and indications are they will), the games will mean less without conference stakes attached. While there’s talk of the ACC eventually moving its conference tournament to Madison Square Garden, at least on a rotational basis, the guest list will be different if and when it comes to pass. But that doesn’t mean the new grouping of teams won’t be any less powerful – that’s hardly the case.

For all the talk about how conference realignment is driven by football, it’s clear that the ACC just took the crown of the best basketball conference away from the Big East while Marinatto was busy examining the lint he dug out of his belly button. The ACC has been top-heavy to a fault in recent years, with either Duke or North Carolina winning the conference’s regular season title in 18 of the last 21 seasons. In addition, the conference’s tournament has been won by either the Tar Heels or Blue Devils all but one time since 1997.

The kings of the ACC have also thrown their weight around in the NCAA Tournament, of course. The conference claims 21 of 88 Final Four spots since 1990, or 23.8%, and only three of those do not belong to the schools on Tobacco Road. In the same time, the Big East holds “only” nine Final Four appearances, good for a little over 10% of the available spots, but the distribution has been much more equitable:

4 – UConn (1999, 2004, 2009, 2011)

2 – Syracuse (1996, 2003)

1 – Georgetown (2007)

1 – Villanova (2009)

1 – West Virginia (2010)

If you add Syracuse’s two trips since that time to the ACC’s collection and throw in four more from Connecticut, which is hungry for an invite, the conference’s share rises from 23.8% to 30.6%. Pittsburgh may not have a Final Four appearance since 1941, but I don’t need to tell you they’ve been good. The addition of SU and Pitt signifies a shift in college basketball power that simply can’t be disputed.

The ACC’s strength on the court is about to get a major shot in the arm, but it’s unclear exactly when that shot will be injected. Recent conference moves such as the ones by Colorado and Nebraska needed only one farewell tour, but the Big East mandates a 27-month session of lingering. Of course, if we’ve learned anything about realignment, it’s that money and anxiety has a way of controlling the pace, so I can see a situation where the timetable is shaped by recruiting factors as well as financial issues.

The Big East lived an illustrious, memorable life built on the strength of its potent basketball programs. The conference may survive by reeling in schools from the Big 12, which is in dire straits itself, but it also may not, and that’s not a risk that Syracuse and Pittsburgh wanted to take.

Syracuse Nets First Commitment of 2012

September 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Friday afternoon’s news of Jerami Grant’s commitment to Syracuse means a number of things for the Orange. The most significant aspects don’t have anything to do with Grant himself or what he’ll bring to the Orange, but rather the mindset regarding Syracuse’s future in the big picture and Adrian Autry’s ability to follow in the footsteps of Rob Murphy.

Most importantly, as you probably know, it signifies the first commitment from the 2012 recruiting class. After going all of last season without a verbal commitment, fans were starting to get antsy. As we discussed earlier this month, it had been several seasons since Syracuse entered an academic year without a verbal from a high school senior. On message boards and Twitter, Jim Boeheim’s ability to keep up on the recruiting trail was questioned despite the fact that the program’s 2011 recruiting class has more McDonald’s All-Americans than non-McDonald’s All-Americans.

When Rob Murphy left the team to take Eastern Michigan’s head coaching job*, the level of nervousness took an uptick. The 2011-12 team was (and is) talked up in preseason rankings as one of the nation’s best, but the future remained murky. Grant’s pledge should sharpen the lens on that picture as the staff turns its efforts to other recruits like Dajuan Coleman, Tyler Cavanaugh and Nerlens Noel.

*The Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy has a terrific article on Murphy hiring Victoria Sun, a Newhouse grad-turned-sportswriter-turned-basketball-administrator at Eastern Michigan. While Sun isn’t the first woman to work in a men’s college basketball office, it’s still a bold and interesting move.

Nabbing Jerami Grant is also the first, and hopefully not the last, DC-area win for Adrian Autry as a Syracuse assistant. The nation’s capital and outlying areas make for a deep pipeline of talent, which Autry is well-suited to court, considering his connections to the area as a former AAU and high school coach and assistant with Virginia Tech. Considering Grant’s bloodlines (his father and uncle played in the NBA, his older brother just finished a stellar career at Clemson, and another older brother is about to begin his collegiate career with Notre Dame), securing a commitment was going to be no easy task. Mission accomplished for Adrian Autry.

Getting away from the rental cars, living rooms and high school gyms and circling back to the Carrier Dome, what I especially like about Grant is the depth he should provide in his freshman year. The trope of this year’s Syracuse team is the experienced guard play of Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche mixed with rising talents like Dion Waiters and Michael Carter-Williams, but the frontcourt picture of life after Rick Jackson and Kris Joseph was hazy until Friday. Followers of this blog know I have an almost irrational love of CJ Fair and confidence that he’ll do great once Kris Joseph graduates, but the team will need some insurance at the wing in 2012-13. It’s too early to completely rule out the idea of James Southerland ever being anything more than a sparsely-used shooter with some rebounding chops, but you can’t slide him in behind Fair for 2012-13 with much confidence, either, at least not at the moment.

Grant’s ability to attack the basket and hit jump shots from the elbow is a skill set that’s very different from Southerland’s. By the time he comes to Syracuse, his versatility could be even greater. If Southerland improves this season, the coaching staff may be saddled with one of the classic good problems to have in deciding between the two.

With the official start of practice under a month away, the Orange have the makings of a very good player in tow for 2012.

Eyes Turn To Recruiting With Grant In-Home Visit

September 8, 2011 Leave a comment

As deep and talented as the current Syracuse team is, full of experience as well as top-flight underclassmen, most of the attention recently has turned to the Orange’s empty list of 2012 recruits. While things have been quiet, you can expect the wheels to start turning again soon. With Friday marking the start of the contact period, when coaches are allowed to make in-home pitches to recruits, the stove is going to heat up. The coaching staff is scheduled to visit with Jerami Grant tomorrow, which means that now is as good a time as any to take a look at what the future may hold and whether the outlook is truly worth being concerned about.

The program has been in this situation a couple of times in recent memory. I found this somewhat surprising, considering Carmelo Anthony’s popularity and visibility to high school basketball players, but after Syracuse won the 2003 title, the team went five months without picking up a commitment from the 2004 class, though Darryl Watkins committed relatively late to suit up in the 2003-04 campaign. In September of 2003, Syracuse picked up verbals from Dayshawn Wright and Josh Wright for the class of ’04. Of course, neither player made it to his senior season at Syracuse, and while both are symbols of a period where the Orange went four seasons without an NCAA Tournament win, I would argue that the lack of development from Terrence Roberts, Watkins and Louie McCroskey is more to blame than the coaching staff whiffing on the class.

Fans may also point to September 2008, when the Orange entered the school year without a commitment from a rising senior in the high school ranks as another precedent, but there wasn’t as much anxiety as there is now. At that point, the program’s standing with Brandon Triche gave the impression of of a sure thing on the recruiting trail and Dion Waiters and C.J. Fair had given their word for the 2010 class, so there was some feel, however nebulous, to what the future portended.

Refocusing to the present, Grant has narrowed his list to three Big East schools in Syracuse, Rutgers and Notre Dame. The Orange has been in on Grant since at least his strong spring, with Rutgers attracting attention more recently and the possibility of playing for Mike Brey a new revelation which rose from conversations Grant had with his brother, Jerian, a freshman at South Bend. While anything is possible, Grant stated over the summer that he intended to make a decision before the start of the season so as not to leave the recruitment process hanging over his head, so it’s reasonable to believe that things are getting close.

Turning to the bigger fish in Dajuan Coleman, despite living in SU’s backyard, his decision may be driven by more complex factors than simple geography and history. For some recruits, immediate playing time is a bigger sticking point than a program’s pedigree, playing style or recent success. When playing time takes priority, recruits will wait out their process to see what a program’s future situation will look like as the season wears on. From all indications, this is how Coleman is approaching his decision, and if he has an eye on getting drafted to the NBA in less than two years from today, I can’t blame him.

While the recruitment process is intriguing, exciting, unclear and frustrating all at the same time, the short-term future is looking terrific. Still, it’s okay to be a little nervous about the current lack of 2012 commitments while being excited about the team as it stands now. If given the choice, however, I’d rather get amped about the 2011-12 team oozing with talent, experience and depth than devour my nails to their roots over players who may or may not pop for the ‘Cuse.