Wild Weekend Opens The Door For Syracuse In The Polls
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.
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.