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Defensive Rebounding Woes

January 31, 2012 Leave a comment

Much of the talk surrounding Syracuse as of late has been the team’s horrific showing on the defensive glass. A nadir may have come Saturday, when West Virginia doubled up the Orange on the glass, but I’m going to discuss this area in the pace-adjusted format of defensive rebounding percentage.

WARNING: I’m about to get really, really nerdy. Like, even more than usual. Now is your chance to run.

For the uninitiated, defensive rebounding percentage takes into account the number of rebounding opportunities, rather than the traditional method of simply counting up the number of boards. For example, if a team gets 20 rebounds off 30 missed shots by the other team, either from the field or the free throw line, it’s considered better than if it corralled 20 rebounds off 35 missed shots, because the overall rate would be higher (66% versus 57%). A clip of 70% is what teams generally strive for, but Jim Boeheim’s zone defense, which puts players in a tough position to rebound opponents’ misses, has been especially ineffective this season. The Orange have cleaned the defensive glass at just 61.4%, the team’s lowest rate since the 2000-2001 season, according to StatSheet.com:

Deciphering why they’re doing so poorly, outside of simply operating within the confines of a 2-3 zone, is a project better left to those who can break down film to analyze positioning, the angles the ball takes off missed shots and other factors. However, if you’ve watched Syracuse regularly, the forwards and centers make such a habit of volleying the rock that without doing any real math, one can draw the conclusion that they wouldn’t be quite as bad if the players squeezed the ball more often instead of bobbling it around the paint.

The impact wouldn’t be that great, though. You see, not only is SU’s defensive rebounding rate near the bottom of the barrel when compared with recent team performances; they’re among the worst in the country, 328th out of 345 Division-I teams. Looking back at historical rankings, the Orange have generally finished between 250th and 300th, so while they’re traditionally well below average in this category, they’ve been downright awful this season. What I want to look at is whether having such a low defensive rebounding percentage is a detriment to the team’s national championship aspirations, based on recent history.

There is a bit of a saving grace in that defensive rebounding percentage, on its own, doesn’t correlate highly with cutting down the nets in a 70,000-seat venue in April. In fact, only two national champions since 2001 (Florida in 2007 and Kansas the next year) have posted defensive rebounding percentages greater than that 70% standard I talked about earlier:

Of the last 11 national champions, none have rebounded as poorly as this season’s Syracuse team. Each of the last eight teams to win it all have rebounded the ball at least 66% of the time. That doesn’t portend well for the 2012 Orange, but there may be a silver lining. Note that the team with the lowest rate among those 11 champions is, you guessed it, the 2003 Orange, who went all the way despite posting a ghastly defensive rebounding percentage of 63.4%.

If Syracuse is to overcome atrocious defensive rebounding to win six consecutive games after Selection Sunday, they have just the coach to show them the way.

Orange Win Overshadowed By Poor Officiating

January 30, 2012 Leave a comment

One of the most interesting things about following games on Twitter, whether you’re an objective fan, partial fan, blogger or national writer, is the experience of getting tons of opinions on a game-changing moment right as it happens. When Baye Keita “blocked” Deniz Kilicli’s putback attempt in the waning seconds of Saturday’s game against West Virginia, reactions from around the community instantly flooded my feed as people weighed in on whether Karl Hess made a bad no-call (he did). The most prevalent opinions can be paraphrased as follows:

1. Referee Karl Hess should not have swallowed his whistle in such an important moment.

2. West Virginia had plenty of chances, but they shot 40% from the floor and committed 14 turnovers in a slow-paced game, so one no-call should not define the game.

3. Even if the referees had whistled Keita for goaltending, who’s to say that Syracuse wouldn’t go down the court and score in the ten or so seconds that remained to win the game?

3. Blame should be placed on the conferences who employ the referees, as they enable excessive workloads, leading to decreased quality in officiating.

But you know what? None of these opinions are incorrect. Don’t get me wrong – Every win is valuable, especially when the Orange get waxed on the glass (again – but more on this later this week) and go ice cold from the perimeter for the sixth straight time. Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be taking a good, hard look at what happened in the closing seconds, and I wanted to offer my take on the perspectives put forth by those I follow.

First, regarding the notion that Karl Hess swallowed his whistle and “let them play,” as the saying goes. There’s a fundamental problem with this. By opting to not get involved in the play, officials get involved in the play. It’s a disservice to the players and coaches to call the game one way for 99% of the time and change it for the remaining 1%. It’s even worse when the right call is clear as day. While those of us at home had the benefit of instant replay to help us see the space between the backboard and the ball when Baye Keita pinned it, it wasn’t necessary, as even the broadcast team immediately took the officiating crew to task.

That doesn’t mean the Mountaineers didn’t have their chances. They had several opportunities, up to and including Kevin Jones’ missed three after the non-call, to pull ahead. As mentioned before, West Virginia didn’t hold onto the ball and the team shot poorly, especially Kilicli, who went 2-10 from the field. That’s right – even if the right call was made, it would only bump Kilicli’s shooting day to 30%, an abysmal rate for anyone, but especially a post player whose attempts come from close range.

Moving on, there was enough time left that even if points had been awarded to West Virginia, the Orange would have had the opportunity to get a shot off in time to win the game, and if they didn’t, there would be an overtime, so while the goaltend would have been the right call, it would not have guaranteed a win for the Mountaineers, which was suggested by a small handful. We’ll never know.

And fingers should be pointed to the Big East’s offices in Providence for employing Karl Hess to work his 21st game in 28 days, according to Statsheet.com. The other two officials have also logged their fair share of miles, though not to Hess’s extreme. Saturday’s game was Brian O’Connell’s 18th in January, and Gene Steratore was on his 17th assignment of the month, but his seventh in eight days. Raphielle Johnson, who you should be following, brought to my attention the fact that Steratore has also called NFL playoff games, which makes the workload even more egregious.

I’ve talked before about how officiating is as much a systemic problem as it is a reflection on the raw ability of the referees to call consistent games. They aren’t robots and studies have shown officiating to be skewed towards the home team, inadvertently or not. However, that doesn’t mean the system isn’t without some serious flaws.

Why referees are allowed to draw so many assignments is perplexing. It’s not as if the pay is so meager that they have to work every chance they get in order to make a living. According to a 2009 article, “Big Six” conference officials are paid upwards of $2,000 per game, though to be fair, that may be a gross amount before expenses, as they are considered independent contractors. In theory, an NCAA official can rake in the median income of an American household by working about 25 games.

It’s not the pay that bothers me, though. If anything, one could argue that pay should be increased so superior talent can be attracted. Being a referee in any sport requires a set of physical and cognitive skills that ought to come at a premium. It’s also true that the NCAA nets over $770 million annually from its tournament broadcasting rights deal with CBS and Turner. While a portion of the money goes towards financing non-revenue sports, I have a hard time believing that a few of those stacks of cash can’t be allocated towards improving officiating by some combination of attracting better talent, sharper evaluation of the current work force, and implementing a system of increased accountability.

There are admittedly a couple of hitches in this idea. As mentioned before, conferences, not the NCAA, oversee officials’ schedules. The financial and logistical aspects would be tough to navigate. However, while you can’t just throw money at a problem and automatically expect it to go away it can be a start.

While a win is a win, I’d be absolutely livid if the shoe was on the other foot. As it is, I’m just moderately livid, the veins in my neck barely intact.

Melo, Mookie and More

January 26, 2012 Leave a comment

The semi-annual long break between games usually tests me as a fan, even when I know it’s coming when the season starts. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on where you stand), over the last few days, some interesting plot points have transpired.

  • Wednesday’s big news was the unveiling of alternate uniforms the team will wear in its game against South Florida on February 22. This development confirmed a UniWatch rumor from earlier in the week, and after I expressed some initial displeasure Wednesday morning, I was able to collect my thoughts a little more coherently. I’m still not fond of the gray, not because it’s Georgetown’s primary color, but because I just don’t think it looks good. One quick look at my Twitter feed was all I needed to realize that I wasn’t in the minority, but it’s important to remember that rightly or wrongly, this decision isn’t about appeasing fans – it’s about attracting recruits. There is enormous cache tied up in schools’ partnerships with Nike, and they have easily the most clout with high school prospects of the major collegiate apparel manufacturers. This isn’t the most pleasant part of being a fan, but the reality is that Syracuse University nets tons of money from Nike, and every few years that means having to parade around with other schools in unfamiliar gear. It’s worth pointing out that every school participating (UConn, Kentucky, Duke, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina in addition to Syracuse) has been wildly successful on the recruiting trail recently, and you’re crazy if you underestimate the pull of the Swoosh when it comes to attracting top high school talent. I think the fact that this game isn’t being nationally televised reduces some of the potential impact for Nike at the cash registers, but it will still be viewable in the areas the Orange recruit the hardest, and that’s the most important thing to remember. It may bother the purists, and if you’re one of them, I don’t blame you one bit for being upset, but it’s a part of major college athletics and keeping up with the Joneses, not simply a chance for Nike to
  • We also got word on Wednesday that “it could be a while” before Fab Melo suits back up for the Orange. Right now, there’s no way of knowing exactly what this means – it could be three days, two weeks, maybe the rest of the season. What I do know is that I don’t think Donna Ditota would’ve brought the unconfirmed report to the masses if she didn’t think there was some legitimacy to it, but at the same time, without having more information, it’s futile to get wrapped up in what the source meant with his or her words. Obviously, if Melo is to miss more time, the rest of the team will have to bear down and we’ll have to hope for more displays like what we saw out of Rakeem Christmas on Monday night. In the short term, there’s some relief in that the Orange only play twice between today and the second week of February, with one of those games coming against a St. John’s team struggling to the point where Melo’s availability shouldn’t factor into the outcome. There’s still time for the matter at hand to be resolved without Melo missing much in terms of games, so you’ll have to forgive me for staying away from the ledge on this one.
  • This is old news by now, but it’s my first chance to talk about Mookie Jones leaving the team. I won’t spend a ton of digital ink on it because of his minimal impact on games, but he’s not totally irrelevant in the bigger picture, either. By all accounts, Mookie left Syracuse on good terms and there may be a place for him on the team next season if he takes care of the personal matters that led to his departure. If his enthusiastically-choreographed pregame handshakes were any indication, he got along great with his teammates and with the Orange having a special season, I can’t imagine he would leave school if the reason wasn’t vitally important to him. While he never developed beyond the role of victory cigar, he stuck it out for 3.5 years when the outbursts he displayed as a younger player suggested a much a shorter stay on The Hill. It wasn’t that long ago where it felt like Mookie would up and leave at a moment’s notice, but his change in attitude as of late actually managed to make the news of his withdrawal a little more surprising. That he stuck around as long as he did when we’ve seen head cases run off by Jim Boeheim or leave on their own accord probably says something about Mookie’s relationship with Boeheim and his growth as a person, so I’ll be rooting for him to return to school so he can finish up and walk away with a degree.

Reaching For A Little Extra

January 24, 2012 2 comments

Last night’s win over Cincinnati wasn’t a must-win by any stretch of the imagination, but it had that feeling as the Orange weathered a pair of outbursts to lock down defensively and do the right things on offense when it mattered most. Cincinnati started out hot, hitting four of five threes early, each more improbable than the last. After the Bearcats raced out to a 16-5 lead, however, Syracuse outscored Mick Cronin’s team 55-37 over the final 35 minutes. Through terrific defensive play and answers every time Yancy Gates tried to take the game over, the Orange earned a big victory on the road against a good team and, most importantly, without Fab Melo.

On offense, it wasn’t pretty as the Orange threatened to go without a made three-pointer for the first time since 1995, and again missed the power game Fab Melo brings to the table. I have a really hard time deciding who had the best game among Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph and Rakeem Christmas, so all three of them get game balls. Scoop had a frosty night from the free throw line, but delivered when it mattered and held onto the ball. He’s now averaged less than two turnovers per game over his last seven and has many fans, including myself, dragging their feet to the table for a heaping serving of crow.

Joseph led the team with an efficient 17 points, keyed a late run to tip the scales in the Orange’s favor going into halftime and kept the team in the game before ‘Cuse gained separation. For a stretch of about four minutes in the second half, he and Gates were the only players to hit shots, and if Joseph hadn’t answered, the Orange probably wouldn’t have won. With two of the team’s best scorers in Dion Waiters and James Southerland inconsistent, SU needed someone to deliver points in the worst way, and the senior stepped up. Until last night, I wasn’t convinced that Joseph could take a game over when his team needed him to, so it was nice to see him prove that he was up to the task. In fact, one could make the argument that the Orange didn’t look his way enough, and I don’t think I would disagree, but it was a joy to see him locked in and focused as he was.

Meanwhile, Rakeem Christmas played, without question, the best game of his young career. You wouldn’t know it if you took a look at the box score and saw a double-double from Yancy Gates, but Christmas defended about as well as you could expect a freshman to defend to while giving up around 40 pounds. While Gates finished with 16 points, he easily could’ve put in 25 if he finished on other opportunities and hit a few more free throws. Christmas’ movement and positioning were fundamentally sound; he committed two defensive fouls in 27 minutes of play (he was called for an illegal screen in the first half), and for some perspective, he’s had eight games this season with fewer minutes and at least three fouls. While it’s true that when Melo’s available, Christmas can afford to be more aggressive, he showed the ability to adjust to the need for him to stay out of foul trouble. He didn’t get caught biting on shot fakes and held his own on the glass when high levels of contact were expected and enabled by the refs. His performance jumps out even more when contrasted against Baye Keita’s season-long regression; Christmas’ nine rebounds on the night were more than Keita has grabbed in any game since February 2 of last year, and I don’t see many things Christmas can’t do as well if not better than the sophomore. Keita is still effective when the Orange put on the press, but I hope to see Christmas take on some more responsibility with Keita continuing to struggle, whether or not Melo returns.

Offensively, while the freshman wasn’t a scoring threat (and probably won’t be for awhile), he set screens all game long and delivered a beautiful pass from the top of the key to a cutting Scoop Jardine for an important basket towards the end of the game. Defenses will continue to play off him, but he showed a pulse on offense with his passing ability, and that’s all the team needs from him right now. I expected Christmas to have a breakout game defensively at some point, but I didn’t expect it to come on the road against one of the most talented big men he’ll face in the regular season.

Now, we play the waiting game to hear the latest on Fab Melo. While people closer to the situation than I am are giving off vibes that he’ll be back in action Saturday against West Virginia, the Mountaineers have another threat down low in Deniz Kilicli who will be tough to stop if the reserves aren’t at their best. By the time the game rolls around, the Mountaineers could be the next second-place team to challenge the Orange, so the ‘Cuse will need every minute of preparation they can get this week.

SU Struggles Without Melo

January 23, 2012 2 comments

Add that to the list of truisms regarding the Orange’s sophomore center that sounded completely ludicrous as recently as three months ago.

While losing the starting center would be a body blow, Notre Dame remained a very beatable opponent. Syracuse was put in a tough but navigable spot Saturday afternoon when it was announced that Melo would miss two games (and potentially more) due reportedly to academic reasons. My impression is that the number of games wasn’t a punishment itself as much as it was a product of unfortunate timing with the Orange playing two games on the road in three days without returning to campus in between. If tonight’s game against Cincinnati was scheduled for later in the week, rather than Monday, my guess is there would be a greater chance of Melo returning, only having missed one game. But that’s neither here nor there; What matters is that the Orange struggled mightily and we learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that Melo is the team’s most important player, even if Dion Waiters is the best.

With Melo out of the equation, the rest of the team felt a bit more pressure, compounded by a rowdy crowd in South Bend. Though simply not having him available was a factor on its own in Saturday night’s loss, it was easy to see the rest of the team feel the stress as the Irish lead swelled and the Orange ran disjointed sets on offense. When SU got some open looks, they didn’t hit, and as the Irish gained separation, a rash of ill-advised shots and an uncharacteristically poor stretch of play from Kris Joseph followed. The only thing the Orange did well was hold onto the ball, with a turnover rate under 15% for the game, but they didn’t hit enough shots for it to matter.

On the other end, even though Notre Dame’s perimeter game appeared to do the most damage, the depleted back line was way too noticeable. Baye Moussa Keita was terrible defensively as the Irish played him like a lean 6’10” fiddle. Keita often left his man to double or rotate for help defense, and was caught cheating time and time again. I haven’t been very critical of Rakeem Christmas this season, even though he’s been far from impressive as well, but that’s because he’s still young and raw, whereas Keita now has over a season and a half of experience and should be able to manage against the likes of Jack Cooley and Pat Connaughton. It used to be that Keita’s softness was only reflected in his declining rebounding totals, but he’s now having trouble defending before a shot even goes up, which is very concerning to me. Cooley is a very nice player, but I came away convinced that a panicked Syracuse back line made him look much more imposing than he really is, and that’s on Christmas as well as Keita.

There’s no question that being without Melo impacted the team, but the Orange didn’t do enough things right in his absence to convince me that the outcome would be different had he been able to play. I have to tip my hat to Mike Brey. He’s had a crummy few months marked by inconsistency and his team struggling to find an identity with Tim Abromaitis sitting out with an ACL tear. The Irish haven’t strung more than two consecutive wins together since before Thanksgiving, and that’s made it easy to forget that Brey took home National Coach Of The Year honors for leading his team to a second-place finish last season. Saturday night, he had the perfect game plan for his personnel – burn time, keep the Orange off the glass, make them run half-court sets and get a good shot every time down the floor – and his players executed it almost flawlessly.

While the Orange didn’t do themselves many favors, the officiating crew led by Tim Higgins was woeful. Coming into the season, I had a good feeling that the charge circle, while good for the game, would take some getting used to by referees across the country. Its implementation is a step up, but it’s still just that – a step. Charges are being called way too often. Defenses are being rewarded for getting caught out of position and camping out just outside of the arc down low, ready to take contact rather than make a play on the ball or try to otherwise alter the path without fouling, and I just don’t see how it benefits the game. I was listening to an interview with Jay Bilas over the weekend, and he seemed to echo this sentiment. Coaches and players are right to use the rule (or more pointedly, how the rule is being defined by referees) to the greatest advantage, but that doesn’t make it beneficial to the game. Perhaps moving the charge circle back another foot or two would convince teams to play actual defense, but the lack of uniformity is a major problem in officiating, and one that I hope can be rectified soon.

Moving onto tonight’s game, Yancy Gates has a chance to make Baye Keita and Rakeem Christmas look even worse than they did in battling Cooley and Scott Martin, but with the advanced knowledge that Fab Melo won’t be around, there’s still a chance the inside core does a decent job. Even before Saturday’s news came along, my thought was that the Cincinnati game could go in any of several directions. The Bearcats have lost some highly surprising home games this season, but sit near the top of the conference standings with just two conference losses and wins over Georgetown and Connecticut already in the bank.

If the worst is to come and Melo has to stay out of action for an extended period of time, it could be the biggest personnel hit since Arinze Onuaku missed the 2010 NCAA Tournament with a quad injury, the main difference being that this team would have more time to adapt. Let’s hope that he gets his issues ironed out and returns to action sooner rather than later, though.

Friday Tip-Ins

January 20, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s been awhile since the last post, so today I’m going to touch on a variety of things that would otherwise make for a very disjointed blog post. This will probably still be disjointed, but if nothing else, I’ve already lowered your expectations, so there’s that. Onward!

  • This week, the undefeated talk has picked up, in some ways sparked by Dick Vitale of all people, who predicted that the Orange would come into postseason play without a blemish. I’m high enough on the Orange and low enough on the other 15 teams in the Big East that I don’t think it’s completely unrealistic, but it’s still something I’m trying to wrap my head around. We’ve talked plenty about how the schedule is backloaded with four games against UConn and Louisville late in the season, but otherwise, very few matchups seem all that imposing. While I still believe that to be true, the Orange play three of their next four on the road, so I’d advise caution in thinking too far down the line
  • TeamRankings.com puts SU’s chances at winning the Big East at 92.4% and we’re not even halfway through conference play. To me, that’s a reflection on several things: The high level of play displayed by the Orange, the underwhelming performance of the rest of the conference, and a few breaks the team caught by the scheduling computers. Cincinnati is the conference’s second place team du jour, but a visit to Morgantown Saturday means that it’s hardly a guarantee that the Bearcats will be in that position when the Orange take a trip to the Queen City on Monday.
  • Fab Melo has more blocks by himself than nearly half the teams in Division I. I came to this realization after seeing a few tweets saying that Kentucky’s Anthony Davis would rank 41st in the nation in blocks if he were an entire team. Entering Thursday’s action, Melo’s 60 blocks puts him on equal footing with Gonzaga and ahead of top-ten team Missouri. It’s tough to look around the conference and see a more improved player – Henry Sims may have a case, off the top of my head – but Melo’s value to the Orange is emphasized when you factor in Baye Keita’s regression and Rakeem Christmas’ youth behind him. It’ll be interesting to see how many Big East teams will venture away from their traditional game plans just to try to get Melo on the bench early with foul trouble, because there aren’t many other ways to neutralize his presence.
  • There’s been some discussion of where Jim Boeheim fits in the National Coach Of The Year picture. Some national writers have veered off the usual “doing the most with the least” formula in citing the unique circumstances the ‘Cuse has dealt with and the undefeated record in spite of the perceived lack of a slam-dunk lottery pick, throwing Jim Boeheim’s name into the ring. There’s no doubt that he’s done an impressive job, but I think there are several candidates who are more likely choices. Assuming Indiana snaps out of its funk, Tom Crean would be a front-runner in my mind, and let’s not forget that (gulp) Georgetown wasn’t ranked to start the season and had three good wins before conference play even started. There’s plenty of time to sort that mess out, though, so let’s stick a pin in this one and revisit it later.
  • As we get deeper into the season, we’re starting to see a couple cracks develop that have provided a blueprint to beating the Orange, aside from the usual standbys of backdoor cuts, hitting shots from the elbow and raining threes. Limiting SU’s transition game and forcing the Orange to run halfcourt sets is much easier said than done, but Pittsburgh revealed that it’s half the battle. Executing offensively is the other half, and that’s where the Panthers fell short on Monday. The Bearcats and Mountaineers rank second and third behind the Orange in offensive efficiency, which leads me to believe they have the best shot of challenging the 2-3 successfully.
  • Thursday morning, a Uni Watch rumor surfaced that the Orange would roll out an alternative uniform prominently featuring gray, against the Hoyas of all teams. Nike has tinkered with gray with a few of its partner schools, and I have to say that I think it looks atrocious. It seems that Nike does this kind of thing every couple of years. If you remember, a few years ago they had the Orange wear a uniform that had a faded pattern on the back intended to resemble the Hall of Languages (it looked more like Darth Vader to me, but I digress). In 2008, SU wore blue on the road for the first time in forever and lost at Notre Dame. I tweeted yesterday that if it’s something that happens once in a blue moon, I won’t be that concerned, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t bother me. Orange is SU’s tradition, and even if veering from that is a one-game novelty, it doesn’t make it any less silly. I think most fans would love to see a throwback to the cursive uniforms or the arched lettering that was prominent from the mid-90’s through 2004, but it doesn’t seem to be in the cards. On a less important note, beating Georgetown in their color would be pretty fun, but it’s important to bear in mind that all of this isn’t based on anything more than a rumor.

I’ll be venturing into the world of natural light, motor traffic and verbal face-to-face interaction on my way to watching the Orange tomorrow afternoon. As a result, there may not be much tweeting going on, so you can be thankful for that. Now, about finding those pants…

Orange Conquer Pitt – Finally

January 17, 2012 Leave a comment

More than anything, I’m happy that the Pitt monkey is off the Orange’s back. I know I shouldn’t have this impression, but topping Pitt at the Dome for the first time in nearly eight years feels like a bigger storyline than the Orange starting 20-0 or Jim Boeheim matching Adolph Rupp on the all-time wins list or sending Pitt to an unprecedented seventh consecutive loss. I have no problem that my priorities are clouded by the fact that SU went nearly winless against Pitt in my days as an undergrad, but in no way am I saying that the record-breaking start and gaudy Boeheim win total aren’t unbelievably impressive feats. That they come in the same campaign makes this season all the more special, but I was more relieved to see the Orange get by Pitt than I was to see the news of the two accolades that were tied to the outcome.

As for the game itself, last night, I saw every style of play the Orange could go with. There was the fast, transition-based run to start the game; the high-contact absorption throughout most of the game, and the slowdown style most teams would love to impose on Syracuse, but they withstood each style and led the whole way. During the 13-0 run to start the night, I noted aloud that the scariest part about it was that Dion Waiters was on the bench the whole time (more on him later). By the way, despite Pitt’s record, I’m really glad the Orange doesn’t have to make a return trip to the Zoo. The Panthers seem to be picking it up and that home court advantage is a great equalizer.

ab Melo was harassed with an absurd amount of contact by the likes of Talib Zanna and Dante Taylor, as well as some poor moments in ball-handling, but he persevered to get his first career double-double and played 29 minutes, his highest total since the Stanford game at Madison Square Garden. He still needs to learn to not bite every time there’s a shot fake and keep the ball high on offense, but he took another big step forward, developmentally speaking.  Outside of C.J. Fair’s poster dunk, there wasn’t much else to speak of from the post players tonight, but unlike some previous seasons, this team’s success won’t be dependent on getting 25 and 20 from the bigger bodies on a consistent basis.

The team is balanced and deep and all those adjectives that give us the warm fuzzies as fans, but the guard play is going to win this team’s biggest games. Scoop Jardine is playing the best basketball of his career, and it’s with a reduced scoring responsibility. He’s averaging a shade over eight points per contest over his last five games, but his ball-handling has been, well, very un-Scooplike. In that time, Jardine has dished out 38 assists against just 11 turnovers, and he’s able to let the scoring come to him rather than the other way around, which often planted him on the bench. The schedule is going to heat up with three of the next five on the road, so I’m not sure how long he’ll keep it up, but credit must absolutely be given where it’s due. It may be a cliche, but it’s still true – teams need leadership and consistency from their point guards in order to make deep runs in March, and that’s exactly what Jardine has been as of late.

The Orange have several players who can be the difference, but if I have to pick one to hit a big shot or answer a big run by the opponent, I’m pushing all my chips in with Dion Waiters as my hole cards. He was quiet for a majority of the game, but then you look up after the final horn and see that he led the team with 16 points, making big shot after big shot. His game-changing ability will sometimes get the best of him, evidenced by a drive to the hoop when it was clear he was going to have a lot of trouble finishing, but I can live with mistakes like that if he’s burying threes, drawing fouls, and playing incredible defense.

I’ve mentioned this frequently, but the schedule is playing right into the Orange’s priorities. Saturday’s blowout allowed Boeheim to substitute freely and save legs, and now the team has five days to party in the cold tub and rest all the bruises and aches from Pitt’s contact-heavy defensive style. The next opponent? Notre Dame, who just lost to…Rutgers.