Orange Depth Dooms Wolfpack
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.