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Grading The Orange Mid-Season

December 28, 2011 3 comments

That’s right, I’m busting out one of the tried and true cliches of sports blogging: the “arbitrary checkpoint report card” post. I won’t argue that report card posts are overdone, but I don’t care all that much because I enjoy writing them and like it when others do the same because oftentimes, they spark interesting debates that lead us to interesting conclusions.

Admittedly, my grades don’t have a set rubric to use as a guide – hence the inclusion of the “arbitrary” modifier. What I try to do, though, is weigh each player against their expectations going into the season, which are different for each player. Here’s what I mean – suppose Mookie Jones and Kris Joseph both carried averages of 12 points and one assist per game into tonight’s contest against Seton Hall. One player would get a C+ from me, and the other would get an A (I’ll let you decide who would get which grade here). See what I mean? Now let’s get rolling.

Dion Waiters: A: I’m starting on a high note here. Coming into the season, we were all left wondering if he bought into Jim Boeheim’s demands and how he would handle coming off the bench in his sophomore year.  You don’t need me to tell you he’s adjusted with aplomb, improving his shot selection and accuracy both inside and outside the arc. Offense has always been his strength, so there wasn’t much doubt that he’d put it together sometime, even if I didn’t expect it this quickly. What’s most exciting is his defensive development, as Waiters has climbed all the way to fifth in the country in steal percentage. It’s likely that number will fall a little bit with conference play revving up, but we know he’s capable of being a terrific defender, which is something we didn’t know eight weeks ago.

Kris Joseph: A- : Kris Joseph has finally morphed into the stud swingman who Jim Boeheim can just throw on the court and let him do his thing. He’s hitting threes and free throws with impressive regularity, and despite using 21.5% of SU’s possessions when he’s on the floor, hasn’t turned the ball over more than twice in a single game all season. The only wrinkle that needs to be ironed out is his shooting inside the three-point line, as he’s hitting a career-low 45.3% on his twos, but there’s nothing else keeping him from being an All-Conference first teamer in my eyes.

Fab Melo: B+: In the off-season, we weren’t sure of Fab Melo’s status as a member of the team in good standing after he got into repeated altercations with his girlfriend on campus. As a judge ruled that his record would be wiped clean as long as he stays out of trouble, any makeup concerns have faded with a very good sophomore campaign. Once the reports of his improved physical condition poured in, I grew excited that we might finally get the Melo that was advertised on the box. Not only has he been able to get up and down the court much better, but his shot-blocking skills have been terrific. The side dish of what I call “The Fab Melo Special” (two charges and a goaltend), seems to be disappearing from the menu of his offerings, so he’s already shown some in-season improvement as well. Melo’s face-up game on offense has been given the hook in favor of developing a back-to-the-basket arsenal, which I am completely on board with.

James Southerland: B: On any other Syracuse team, I’m probably pulling my hair out over James Southerland’s one-dimensional game. This season, however, he’s filling an ideal role for his skillset as the designated gunner. Over half of Southerland’s tries have been threes, which isn’t anything new for him, but he’s drilling the ball from long range at a career-best 43.9%. As long as he doesn’t turn the ball over (and he hasn’t – just four turnovers all season. You can read that again if you like, but it’s not changing) and is hitting his shots,  the rest of the team can make up for his defensive inadequacies. However, when his shooting touch is off, as it was against Florida, Marshall and Bucknell, his value falls faster than a national writer can give Syracuse a backhanded compliment.  I’d like to see Southerland deployed more against the opponent’s reserves or when the Orange can build momentum with a troublesome opponent on the bench with foul trouble, just to give a couple examples. I still don’t have reason to trust him in a close game, but on this team, he doesn’t have to be relied on to play that kind of role.

C.J. Fair: B: Fair’s worst game of the season came against Marshall, when he went 0-3 from the floor and grabbed just one rebound in 20 minutes of action – in other words, he was absent more than he was a liability as a volume shooter or turnover machine.  Fair’s season has been quieter than I hoped it would be, but he did notch a nice highlight with his first career double-double coming against a solid defensive team in Virginia Tech at Madison Square Garden. There’s no reason to rush his development, as I remain confident that he’ll be ready explode when Kris Joseph graduates.

Michael Carter-Williams: B-: We’re on the sixth grade, and I’ve yet to hand out anything lower than a B-. I like this team a lot, but it’s also a reflection of the depth we hear so much about. All Carter-Williams needs to do in my mind is make me feel ok about the future of the point guard spot, and he’s done that. He tries to force things a bit too much when he enters games only to settle down later, but I’d rather that be a problem than a trend of passivity. If he plays big minutes in an important game this year, something probably went wrong somewhere along the line, but it’s tough to find myself worrying about a freshman in the Big East.

Scoop Jardine: C+: If Scoop begged me hard enough, I could probably change this to a B-, but only after wondering why he needs a blogger’s validation in the first place. I’m not going to deny that the show Scoop put on against Florida was the gutsiest performance by an SU player this season, but there have also been seven games – over half – where SU’s fifth-year senior has played less than 20 minutes. He also had a classic Scoop game with six turnovers against Virginia Tech. To play devil’s advocate to myself, when the season started, I hoped that having a slew of backcourt options would lead Boeheim to pull Scoop when he’s not performing well or just needs to see Carter-Williams in action or find a way to keep Dion Waiters on the court, and that’s exactly what Boeheim has done. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t want to be the guy who does nothing but mope about Scoop getting a long leash when he doesn’t deserve it only to later complain that he can’t stay on the court, but I think more should be expected from a player as experienced as Scoop is. To his credit, he’s endured throughout with a smile, even when some aspects of his play (67.2% on twos and a propensity for drawing fouls) suggest that he should be on the court slightly more often.

Brandon Triche: C-: I want Brandon Triche to succeed more than just about every player on this roster. But it still hasn’t happened yet, as we’re seeing the junior yet again struggling to overcome his reputation as a streaky player. All you have to do is look at his performance from this season in three very distinct segments.

First four games: 9 PPG, 37% FG, 21% 3FG

Next four games: 15.3 PPG, 51% FG, 50% 3FG

Last five games: 18.4 MPG, 6 PPG, 35.5% FG

If that doesn’t make you shrug your shoulders and think “well, that’s Brandon Triche for you,” you probably haven’t been following this team for very long. Fortunately, knowing Triche, he has a few good runs in him as long as he’s healthy, but I might be starting to give up on the notion that he’ll ever turn into a consistent scorer.

Rakeem Christmas: C+: Christmas has looked overwhelmed, dominant, lazy and active all at different points this season. Lately, he’s been active, but you also have to consider the competition. His four lowest playing time totals have come against Power Six competition, and for that reason, I don’t think he’ll be on the court long when the competition stiffens starting tonight. He needs to be ready at a moment’s notice, because…

Baye Moussa Keita: D: …because Baye Moussa Keita has gone completely AWOL. In a previous post, I noted that Southerland and Keita are similar in that if they aren’t applying their respective lone specialties, there’s absolutely no good reason to keep them on the court. Southerland has for the most part, which is why he’s closer to the top of this post, but Keita has plummeted all the way down to here. He may be shooting 75%, but the sample size is incredibly small (as it should be. Did you see his missed dunk? If you didn’t, well… a 6’10” dude who already provides little offensive value missed a dunk). Keita has taken 20 shots all season, and for reference, if you add Kris Joseph’s two highest-volume shooting games, you end up with 31 attempts. Keita’s problems on defense seem fixable, but he may be feeling the pressure of losing playing time to a freshman.

Mookie Jones: Incomplete: Mookie’s played just once in the last five weeks and has passed on any and all opportunities for mop-up duty, which is like looking a gift horse in the mouth. Hey! Mookie! There are starving children around the world who would love to be on the Carrier Dome floor for the last two minutes padding their stats against George Washington! I think that’s how the guilt trip is supposed to go, but the fumes from the Funyon dust strewn about my parents’ basement carpeting, coupled with the Pop-Tart sugar rush, don’t have me feeling very sure of myself at the moment.

Some extra credit is due to the walk-ons, headlined by Matt Tomaszewski and his hot hand. With DePaul and Providence coming up quickly, hopefully he gets a couple chances to keep his streak alive. I think there’s still room for the Orange to get better, as if undefeated and #1 in both major polls hasn’t been impressive enough. Whether or not they improve will be determined over the next three months.

Conference Play Rolls In

December 27, 2011 Leave a comment

The start of conference play is always a little re-invigorating. Typically, Syracuse’s last few games of non-con play are easy lay-ins devised by the coaching staff to make sure everything is in line for league play, from the depth chart factors to making sure there are opportunities to give rest to anyone who needs it. Add in the somewhat lengthy break from Christmas where the schedule dies down where I’m left watching a tilt like UTEP-Auburn Sunday night that would be a throwaway game on any other night and you can picture my elation for conference play to resurface.

To catch up on how the conference is doing as a whole, the top is as formidable as it’s ever been, but the gap between the good teams and everyone else has widened in comparison to past seasons. In addition to Syracuse, Connecticut, Marquette and Louisville have elbowed into the top ten nationally. While Georgetown has been one of the bigger stories, the rest of the top half is not as imposing as usual. I’m always hesitant to buy into a team like Cincinnati whose schedule can be mistaken for a D-II team’s if you squint just hard enough, and West Virginia is short on impressive performances. Moving on down, we aren’t used to seeing Villanova toiling like they have been, Notre Dame looks depressingly mediocre with Tim Abromaitis sitting the season with a torn ACL, and Steve Lavin’s construction project at St. John’s has suffered some big setbacks. Then of course you have the dregs at the bottom fighting it out for scraps. I wouldn’t expect the conference to get nine teams into the NCAA Tournament, but it still has a slight chance of happening if only because none of the other power conferences (with the exception of the Big Ten) have stepped up either.

Obviously, there’s a ton of basketball left and things are far from set. For the Orange, the conference slate is bookended with a fairly easy stretch – Seton Hall at home followed by DePaul and Providence in their hauntingly quiet environs – and games at Connecticut and home against Louisville to close out the regular season. While I feel Louisville is overrated right now, the Cardnials should be much better by February, assuming all of their injured players heal as scheduled.

For the Orange, opening night at the Big East Theater could be too suspenseful for my tastes, but it could also be very entertaining, if history is any indicator. To me, the series against Seton Hall has been one of the most confounding of any conference opponent, particularly in recent seasons. No matter how beatable SHU has looked going in, the results of late have made for a  surprisingly mixed bag. Since 2003, Syracuse and Seton Hall have played each other nine times. Four have resulted in decisive wins for SU (by 12+ points), two more wins have come by seven or fewer points, and The Hall have won the other three games by seven, seven and 22 points, respectively. Only twice in that span has Seton Hall fielded an NCAA Tournament team, so I feel pretty safe assuming that they were the underdogs in all nine of those matchups. In short, the Pirates have been a tough out (or worse) almost as often as they’ve been an easy win. For a team that’s scuffled as much as Seton Hall, it’s really perplexing.

Of course, we can’t hold the current team accountable for what happened in 2004, but it’s worth noting that the Orange have shot just 42% against Seton Hall in their last three games. That’s not a good sign as SU hosts a Hall team that has been one of the big stories of the conference, as they’ve raced out to an 11-1 start with wins over VCU, Saint Joseph’s and Dayton – Not world-beaters by any stretch, but impressive nonetheless when you consider the health and coaching problems that have been so pervasive over the last few years. These days, Herb Pope is finally at full strength and highly reliable, Fuquan Edwin has been Waiters-like in his defensive intensity and scoring acumen inside the arc, and point guard/Donald Faison lookalike Jordan Theodore has been dishing out assists at a rate unmatched by all but 17 players in the country, all the while playing 89% of the available minutes.

It may not seem like it when you think of Seton Hall, but this is shaping up to be one of the most interesting and unpredictable games of the season. The numbers suggest that this should still be an easy win for Syracuse, and I’m still confident in the Orange, but by the same token, it may be one of those rare matchups where you have to take the numbers at face value because recent history has repeatedly shown that things rarely go as planned.

Freshmen Orientation A Story In SU’s Win Over Bucknell

December 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Everyone who expected Rakeem Christmas to have the best game of his young career last night, step forward. Now, step back again, because you’re either lying or deranged.

His playing time may still get cut down when Big East play comes, but he certainly made his case for an extended look before Jim Boeheim  closes the book and we become confident in comparing him to Fab Melo as freshman-starter-in-name-only. I’ve always thought that Christmas’ offensive skills were undersold, though make no mistake that they’re still pretty limited. What I saw from him last night was an ability to get into position on the low blocks, with the guards getting clear enough angles to feed him the ball, plus a token putback. You don’t have to worry much about him finishing once he gets the ball (his 68% field goal percentage is second only to Baye Keita, who has nine fewer attempts), but because he’s still getting comfortable as a freshman, it’s going to take some time for him to get on the right page offensively. Tuesday night was the perfect storm of an undersized Bucknell back line that also didn’t have much skill meeting a long-armed wing who, for at least one night, could get by on his physical tools more than his array of post moves.

In the postgame presser, Jim Boeheim even compared him to Hakim Warrick, which I didn’t really see coming at the time, though I understand the comparison now. Both players arrived at Syracuse still developing physically and without a lot of low post prowess. Less important is the Philadelphia connection, but you can throw that in as well. Christmas is already bigger than Warrick’s peak size as a collegian, and there’s a significant difference in the hype they carried out of high school. Still, while Warrick developed a little bit of range by his senior season, the post is where Christmas should develop his repertoire as long as he’s at Syracuse.

Another reason that Christmas is getting more opportunities is the continued decline of Baye Keita. It’s becoming somewhat perplexing, because the recent competition has not been the kind that should pose a threat to his defensive skill set. He’s pulled down just ten boards over his last four games, which for perspective, is five fewer than Scoop Jardine has in the last four games. Granted, Scoop regularly plays more than Keita, but the disparity is still disconcerting. I won’t harp on this too much because I’ve discussed it ad nauseum, but if Keita isn’t helping the team out with his defense, having him on the court is a waste of available minutes better spent on players who can contribute more consistently. Offense has never been Keita’s game and probably won’t ever be, but it’s pretty damning that Matt Tomaszewski, the Orange’s walking trivia question, only has one fewer point than Keita over the last three games. We still haven’t seen enough of Christmas, but we’re approaching the point where he and Keita may be neck-and-neck for playing time before too long. In fact, we may already be there – in three of the last four games, Christmas has played an equal or greater number of minutes than Keita. This is a situation definitely worth monitoring.

We also got to see more of Michael Carter-Williams, which was very important, even though his current role wouldn’t lead one to that conclusion. As with Christmas, the opportunities for the staff to get a good look at MCW in game action might be wearing thin with non-conference play drawing to a close later this week. He’s still a little too jittery when he comes in, but I’ve noticed that in every game where he’s received some real time, he gets more comfortable after a few possessions. It’s also helps that there are so many options that he doesn’t have to create for himself, even though that was his calling card in high school. At the same time, SU was firmly enough in control that he could take a chance when he wanted and get out on the break and throw down a dunk.

Moving on, rather quietly, Kris Joseph is putting together an excellent season. I’m most impressed by his consistency from long range and at the charity stripe. He isn’t a volume shooter from the perimeter, but he’s hoisted at least three threes in all but one game so far and is hitting on over 40% of his tries. He isn’t being as forceful as he probably could, but with so many good options on offense, he doesn’t have to. Though he hasn’t lived at the free throw line, he’s missed just two free throws since Thanksgiving and is 13-13 over the last three games. The feat becomes slightly more impressive when you consider that the team played an evening game on the road over the weekend, and had to fly back the same night to play again 72 hours later.

Thursday’s game against Tulane will shut the door on non-con play and end a torrid stretch of three games in six days before a well-deserved six-game layoff. The season is flying by, but the future of SU basketball, both in the short-term as well as long the term, continues to look bright.

Orange Depth Dooms Wolfpack

December 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Saturday’s convincing win over NC State goes down as some of the most fun I’ve had watching a Syracuse basketball game in recent years.  It’s definitely behind any of the 2006 Big East Tournament games, without a doubt a few notches below the six-overtime game, but there probably aren’t many in between. Maybe the 87-71 win over North Carolina in 2009 that catapulted the Orange into the national title conversation after losing three starters from the previous season.

The supersized runs of 23-0 (in about 6:30 during the first half) and 25-9 (over the last 8:00 of the game) were executed at breackneck paces and with incredible efficiency. In the first half run, Syracuse went 9-15 from the floor and 5-8 from beyond the arc with Kris Joseph, James Southerland and Dion Waiters making it rain. I think it’s also worth noting that zero of the 23 points came from the free throw line, with Michael Carter-Williams missing a pair. I’m not sure how impressed I should be that SU didn’t need undefended shots with the clock stopped, since the Wolfpack didn’t seem to care about defending when the clock was running, but I found it interesting. Then again, I’m a pretty big weirdo.

In retrospect, this matchup couldn’t have been more ideal for Southerland. The combination of a porous NC State defense beyond the arc, Southerland’s height and his three-point shooting ability was a perfect recipe for the junior to explode. If given too much time, he’s bound to get exposed as we saw when the Wolfpack mounted a comeback to start the second half with him on the floor, but he’s excellent as someone who can shoot the Orange back into a game when they’re down and get the lead out to extend a run like we saw Saturday night. In watching him play, I’m starting to come to the conclusion that he’s become what many of us expected Mookie Jones to be. In terms of athleticism and the positions they play, they’re very different players, but the skill sets and roles are the focuses here. Jones has never had anything more than outside chance of cracking Jim Boeheim’s rotation, but many believed that if he worked hard enough, he could become that player Boeheim inserts with a double-digit lead to put a game out of reach with deadly three-point shooting. Like Jones, Southerland is still a defensive liability and there’s some kind of mandate prohibiting him from dribbling, but in the right situation, he’s a very nice complementary weapon capable of putting opponents down for the count when they’re on the ropes.

While NC State made a run of their own to come back within two, what I noticed most was a big difference in the way SU defended. For one, Baye Keita was not his usual self as he sagged away from shooters. Since Keita’s value to the team is entirely dependent on his defensive intensity, he can ill afford to slack off, as he managed to get outrebounded by Southerland, C.J. Fair and five different players on the Wolfpack. Understanding that there weren’t many rebounds to be had with the two teams combining to shoot 57% from the floor, it was still a touch disappointing to see him struggle in an otherwise exhilarating night.

Expanding on that point, I think we’re starting to see the minutes lean very heavily away from Keita and more towards Fair. Last season, Keita was hugely important off the bench, but that’s more of an indictment of SU’s lack of frontcourt depth beyond Rick Jackson in 2011 than an assessment of Keita’s ability. Now that Fab Melo’s playing better and Fair’s continuing to develop, it’s getting tougher for Boeheim to keep Keita on the floor for an extended amount of time when he doesn’t play well. He’s still a very nice piece to have and has his moments when the Orange get lethargic defending the interior, but on a team with options, he risks getting squeezed out if he doesn’t bounce back.

Moving on, I was impressed by NC State’s crowd. I like watching how teams respond to formidable road environments, and the Wolfpack definitely fall into that category despite just one season with a winning record in conference play since 2005. The Wolfpack have no better than the third-best program in North Carolina at any given time, and when Wake Forest is decent, NC State is usually behind them. One of the residual effects to SU’s move to to the ACC is the disappearance of conference road games in NBA venues like the Bradley Center and Verizon Center. While I understand that those off-campus venues make it easier for traveling fans to see the Orange (well, except in Georgetown’s case…) and look nicer on TV, part of what makes college basketball so awesome is those loud on-campus arenas.

We saw the Orange get a convincing road win over the weekend, and while it may not quiet the critics, it’s a welcome sign for a team that will play with a target on its back for the foreseeable future.

Orange Travel To Raleigh To Face Future Conference Opponent

December 17, 2011 Leave a comment

After a bit of a respite, I’m back with a special Saturday post. Just when you thought you had your weekends free…

I said before that I won’t make this a regular home for previews, but I’m making an exception today. NC State hardly seems imposing on the surface. They Wolfpack have been largely irrelevant historically, failing to post a winning conference record in 14 of the last 18 seasons, and haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2006. This year seems a little different, though. NC State isn’t a program that’s risen from the ashes like an Indiana, but they may be on their way. By the time Syracuse joins the ACC, I think NC State will be a top-half team, but I’m less certain about their chances in the short term.

That doesn’t mean NC State hasn’t been competitive this season. Mark Gottfried’s team has no bad losses. They may be 6-3, but their worst defeat to date can be debated between a neutral court road loss to Vanderbilt in New Jersey and a home loss to the surging Hoosiers. The Wolfpack have been competitive in all three defeats, losing by 7, 11 and 4. What they’re hungry for is a quality win. Of their six vanquished opponents, only one ranks in Ken Pomeroy’s top 100, as the Wolfpack rallied from a huge deficit to top Texas last month at the Izod center. Syracuse, with its #1 ranking, presents that opportunity, and with a home environment (though I await in advance the national writers qualifying an SU win in Raleigh by stating that the students were on break and thus the game wasn’t really a true road game), they’ll be amped up a little more than usual.

C.J. Leslie, who missed last season’s game against Syracuse in The Dome with an injury, leads the Woflpack in scoring with an efficient 12.8 points per game in 26 minutes, and has played well in NC State’s bigger games, so using the Orange’s win last season to speculate about how tonight’s game will go isn’t entirely accurate.

Right behind Leslie in scoring is forward Richard Howell, who is having a breakout season with 11.9 points and 8.3 boards per game, but it’s also worth noting that he’s dipped to 8.4 points per game in his last five. Rather, the focus beyond Leslie shifts to sharpshooting Scott Wood. Wood comes into tonight’s game with a scorching 56.8% clip from beyond the arc, and threes have accounted for nearly 80% of his total shot attempts, so if you’re searching for the token player who can slay an opponent despite a skill set that is far from versatile, look no further. Outside of Wood, who can shoot over SU’s guards with his 6’6″ height, the team is shooting just 22%, so as long as the Orange check him, they should be fine.

The Wolfpack as a team don’t present many threats. They do a decent-enough job of holding onto the ball and rebound well on the offensive glass, and SU has struggled somewhat with teams that clean up their misses, but they’re a mediocre shooting team and have been woeful defensively. Thus far, they’ve allowed opponents to shoot 39.8% from beyond the arc, which almost negates Wood’s expertise, and they’re bad at forcing steals. NC State may hang around, but the wheels could come off quickly for them if they don’t focus on stopping SU’s transition attack.

Wild Weekend Opens The Door For Syracuse In The Polls

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Before I get into Syracuse’s win over George Washington over the weekend, I wanted to spend a little time talking about Saturday in general. It’s tough to remember a more dramatic day of regular season college hoops. It started with the reprehensible brawl between Cincinnati and Xavier at the Crosstown Shootout. People who are more familiar than I am with the rivalry between the teams have said that they weren’t too surprised by what happened, but it doesn’t make it any less disgraceful to me. When the suspensions of Yancy Gates, Cheikh Mbodj and others were announced Sunday, I immediately thought they were too short, and still hold that belief.

Gates, Mbodj and Octavius Ellis were each slapped with six games while Ge’Lawn Guyn will only sit out for the Bearcats’ next game. A few Xavier plays will sit out as well, and it should be pointed out that they escalated the scene,  but to a Syracuse blog, that’s not as relevant. Many are disappointed that the punishment not only doesn’t seem to fit the crime, but it doesn’t mes with what was suggested in Mick Cronin’s press conference after the fracas. I think I’m bothered more by the fact that the suspensions seem to be driven more by the schedule than the actions that necessitated them. We’ll never know for sure, but  I tend to believe that if the fight happened closer to the start of conference play, the suspensions would be even shorter. It doesn’t shock me that the repercussions seem so hollow – when pressed, coaches stoop to incredulous levels to keep their jobs by winning important games – but it’s nonetheless disappointing. While I understand that the players’ punishments also include public apologies and some element of community service, I still think it’s pretty light. Now, we won’t truly know if it was enough until after the fact as the players involved prove (or don’t) that they’ve grown up and learned from the experience, but I’m skeptical that will happen, given their backgrounds and previous makeup issues. If that means I’m on some kind of moral high horse, I’m perfectly content to sit here and enjoy the view.

Later in the day, Ohio State fell at Kansas with Jared Sullinger in his streets and Indiana stunned Kentucky with a buzzer-beating three to knock off #1 and clear the last of the remaining traffic between Syracuse and the top spot in the polls. I’ve never fully agreed with them, but many were saying that Tom Crean should be on the hot seat if he doesn’t get the Hoosiers to the NCAA Tournament this season. He’s run into a lot of bad luck over the years, but it looks like the Hoosiers will finally be able to break through. When Steve Lavin got on his recruiting roll (remember when no one had transferred out? I have trouble myself.) and outperformed expectations in his first year, the sentiment around the community was something along the lines of “college basketball is at its best when St. John’s is relevant.” Though I find that to be true, a stronger case can be made tying the welfare of the sport to Indiana’s program, with its five national championships and eight Final Four trips.

Fortunately, such on-court drama was nowhere to be found in the Carrier Dome Saturday night as the Orange walloped George Washington by 35. Once again, SU’s defense bullied the opposition into a poor shooting performance and plenty of turnovers, some brought on by the Orange press. Minutes went around like Dion Waiters retweets, but despite the blowout margin, we did learn a couple things. First, Syracuse is starting to look a little lax on the boards. In the last two games, the Orange have been outrebounded both in the traditional rebounding margin as well as the tempo-neutral percentages.

C.J. Fair in particular has struggled, with just four rebounds in his last two games which have included 39 minutes of court time. I think we’re finally seeing teams adjust to his presence and pay more attention to the threat he poses. This is something I knew would come eventually, and now it’s on him to make that counter-adjustment. Until now, he’s been able to get by on his superlative court awareness and knack for positioning, but it can only take him so far. While I wouldn’t call it a prolonged slump, the amount of time it takes for him to re-emerge is something to keep an eye on. He’s smart enough of a player that I almost expect him to bounce back, perhaps before the start of conference play, but the fact that he’s a little undersized at the wing stops me just short of being guaranteeing that it will happen.

The rebounding woes don’t fall all on him, though. Fab Melo’s tendency to go for the block and try to draw charges isn’t a hindrance to the defense as a whole, but I think you can also look at it as a reason why SU’s rebounding numbers have suffered. To a lesser extent, you can also attribute the dip to the idea that the Orange like to hang back when shots go up so they can capitalize in transition, rather than sending more players to the rim. Going into last week’s game, it was pretty well-established that Marshall was a good rebounding team, but the performance against a smaller team like George Washington definitely leaves a question to be answered.

There were also plenty of highlights, though. Michael Carter-Williams had his first big game with eight assists against zero turnovers. While Brandon Triche can fill in at the point when Scoop Jardine sits, I’m not sure it’s the direction Jim Boeheim prefers, so it was nice to see the freshman inspire some confidence. Something that’s been more recurring is a trend of stellar performances at the line. We’ve talked about how the Orange historically struggle at the stripe, but over the last four games, SU has shot 77% (56-73) at the line, contrasted with a 62.6% clip in the team’s first six games. It’s definitely a welcome departure from what we’re accustomed to.

It’s easy to explain the improvement – the best free throw shooters on the team are getting the most attempts. Of SU’s 73 attempts over the last four games, Brandon Triche, Kris Joseph and Dion Waiters, who lead the team in free throw accuracy, accounted for 36 of the tries and made 30 of them. I apologize in advance for ranting a little here, but I’m going to do it anyway. In recent seasons, the problem wasn’t that no one could make a free throw, it was that bricklayers like Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson were so bad and got to the line so often that it masked the contributions of good shooters like Eric Devendorf (79.4% for his career), Jonny Flynn (78.1%), Wes Johnson (77.2% in his only season at SU), Andy Rautins (76.2%) and Paul Harris (72.3%). It’s also worth mentioning that since the start of last season, Scoop Jardine is only shooting 63% from the line, but now that he’s deferring more on offense (Florida game notwithstanding), I don’t see him getting to the charity stripe often enough to make a big impact in the team’s overall numbers. As Waiters, Triche and Joseph continue to be aggressive and cobble together more attempts, I think we’ll see the stats paint a prettier picture than what we’re used to seeing.

\rant.

In a way, it’s fortunate that this weekend was so nuts, because for most schools, finals week will bring things to crawl until this Saturday at the very least. As for me, I’ll likely find myself tuning into a number of tepid matchups which, under normal circumstances, would never cross my mind.

I may need help.

Orange Send A Loud Message On Defense

December 8, 2011 3 comments

In a team-oriented sport like basketball, we often hear about the importance of communication: the coach calling plays, the point guard running them, the coach letting his players know when they’ve made a mistake. It’s hugely important, but as a team, Syracuse is sending a loud, loud message to its opponents with its defense:

“You’re not going to get many chances to score on us, and when you come up short, we’re not going to bail you out.”

Entering Wednesday night’s action, the Orange ranked in the top ten nationally in each of the following categories:

  • Defensive turnover percentage (29.9% – second)
  • Offensive rebounding percentage (43.0% – sixth)
  • Blocked shots per game (6.8 – eighth)
  • Defensive block percentage (21.7% – third)
  • Steals per game (12.4 – first)
  • Defensive steal percentage (17.9% – first)

As if that weren’t enough to tell you just how effectively the zone is working, the Orange rank in the bottom ten percent of all teams in fouls committed. The vice grip has been so tight that not a single team has scored even one point per possession. The closest any of SU’s nine opponents have come to the national average of offensive efficiency came against Albany, when Gerardo Suero and Logan Aronhalt gave the Orange headaches, but even then, SU won by a comfortable 14-point margin.

Some teams are able to make up for their scoring challenges in other areas, such as Marshall’s impressive glasswork Tuesday night. As of Wednesday night, three Big East teams in addition to the Orange (Pittsburgh, UConn and West Virginia) rank in the top ten nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, so SU’s biggest tests are still to come, but it’s hard not to be blown away by the clamps they’ve put down.

The schedule has been pretty soft, even by Jim Boeheim’s standards, but Marshall and Tulane’s success in the early going have nudged the slate up just a tick from how it was perceived when it was finalized before the season. It’s still an uninspiring set of opponents – and that’s with Florida included. This isn’t me putting lipstick on a pig, but I have a feeling that at the end of the season, it won’t look nearly as bad as we thought as when the schedule was assembled.

In short, to beat the Orange, all you have to do is play a well-rounded game at both ends of the floor and hope for a heavy dose of miscues by the Orange.

Pretty simple, right?