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Winning With Baye Keita

February 28, 2012 Leave a comment

The regression of Baye Keita has been a story for most of this season, but on Saturday, it may have become too big for even the biggest Keita fan to ignore. After a solid freshman season that saw Keita play more minutes than perhaps Jim Boeheim planned due to the slow development of Fab Melo, he’s become worse this season in a smaller role. His rebounding, the supposed bread and butter of his skill set, has worsened to the point that his 2.4 boards per game are lower than nearly every member of the Orange rotation. The only player averaging fewer rebounds per game is Dion Waiters, who is right behind Keita at 2.3, though to his credit, Keita is the leading shot-blocker behind Melo.

While Keita’s decline has been noted throughout the season, the team really felt the squeeze when he was forced back into significant playing time with Melo sitting out while academic issues were resolved. Keita’s 25 minutes against Notre Dame were the most he had played in a game since totaling 27 minutes against UConn last season, and all he could muster was two points and two rebounds to go with a pair of turnovers. Though he played better against West Virginia (four points, four rebounds, three blocks and no turnovers in 25 minutes), it was evident that even that kind of performance wasn’t sufficient for a backup.

The ire towards Keita appeared to have reached a boiling point in the Twitterverse in the second half of SU’s win over UConn. As you probably remember, after rebounding a missed follow by Dion Waiters, Keita came down with the ball at point-blank range, and rather than throw the ball through the basket, attempted to lay the ball in – and missed. It was around that time that the Huskies’ run started to escalate, and while the blame can’t be placed squarely on him, it can be argued that Keita’s miss kept the momentum in UConn’s favor. Even though the Orange held on to win the game and claim its second Big East Championship in three years, the team’s froncourt depth behind Fab Melo remains a question as the team enters the most important part of its season.

Melo’s endurance since returning to action has been a godsend, as he’s averaged 30.3 minutes in his last seven games. Avoiding foul trouble and drawing charges, he’s been the venerable anchor to the 2-3 zone that has been so fruitful to Syracuse all year long.  With Rakeem Christmas fortunate to last beyond the first few minutes before the team goes smaller with C.J. Fair and occasionally James Southerland, there aren’t many alternatives. The Orange have had several slow starts lately (Saturday notwithstanding), and Keita has typically entered the game midway through the first half, usually as the team starts to mount one of its patented runs. However, anyone who has watched the Orange will tell you that the team has succeeded despite Keita’s play, not because of it.

It’s tough to get too frustrated with a player that averages just a touch less than ten minutes per game, but it’s harder to ignore the fact that he’s been a major disappointment. In games where Keita has had a steady diet of minutes, more often than not, it hasn’t been because he’s played well, but because because Melo has been saddled with foul trouble or the occasional lack of gold stars. The Orange have surged on despite Keita’s regression, but in tournament settings, where teams are playing on consecutive days or twice within three days, SU’s bench will have to be at its best, and that may require Keita reaching back for some of the toughness and ability that kept the team in games last season.

Orange Proves It Can Win At All Paces

February 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Like last Monday’s game against Louisville, Wednesday’s win over South Florida featured an opponent trying to beat the Orange by making Jim Boeheim’s troops play defense for most of the shot clock and then make shots of their own while trying to force their style. Both games were played at sluggish paces; the win over the Cardinals was the slowest game of the conference season, checking in at 58 possessions (65 is roughly the D-I average), though it’s worth noting that the game was filled with offensive rebounds, which compress pace even if the action isn’t at a crawl. while last night’s victory was a 61-possession affair. Both opponents tried to frustrate the Orange with styles that would make them uncomfortable only to come up short in the end.

It certainly wasn’t pretty last night. Even after the ‘Cuse went on a 26-0 run, the Bulls were able to cut the 13-point lead down back down to three before SU closed it out. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t impressive, though. All season, South Florida has played like snails. In all of Division I, only 11 teams play slower than USF, but only 26 teams are more efficient on defense. Unlike Rick Pitino, whose team ventured away from its normal style in trying to limit possessions last week, Stan Heath’s team has been playing this way all season long. While it can be aggravating to watch, that formula is what has led USF to ten Big East wins and shouting distance of its first tournament bid since the early 90’s.

Last night, the Bulls took a long trip up to New York and built a big lead early (13 points is closer to 20 for an average-paced team) by executing their game plan very well, milking the clock on one end and blocking off the paint at the other. USF also became the latest team to outrebound the Orange, but that’s hardly news, because as has been the case this whole time, it still wasn’t enough. Once the Bulls stopped hitting shots, Syracuse got its offense rolling thanks to a more dependable Scoop Jardine and the Orange held on to get its 28th win of the season.

While the Orange like to push the ball and force action at both ends, the team has proven – several times, now – that it can win against any style thrown at them. If you want to run with Syracuse, go ahead (Marquette, Providence and DePaul). If you want to slow it down and do your best Big Ten impression (Cincinnati, West Virginia, and now USF), you may have some early success, but even though Notre Dame pulled it off for a whole game, more times than not, the Orange will do what it takes to get the upper hand and ultimately prevail.

I still think that a physical, slower team could be the kind that does the Orange in come tournament time, but in the meantime, this team is meeting all comers and brushing them aside one by one. The home stretch of the season may make you want to pull your hair out at times, but there’s also the chance these nailbiters turn the final outcome into something truly special.

When Shooting Guards Can’t Shoot

February 22, 2012 Leave a comment

With just three games to go until the Orange head down to Manhattan for the Big East Tournament, Syracuse sits at 27-1, in the driver’s seat for a top seed and with its second conference title in three seasons almost a formality. A different player is stepping up every game to play a key role, whether it’s throughout the game or just to deliver the dagger. The team is riding a seven-game winning streak, and two of the final regular season three opponents have postseason prospects that can be described as dicey at best. Factor all that in and the odds are pretty decent that the Orange will close it out with 30 wins before they even get to Madison Square Garden, something that’s never been done in program history. It’s a great time to be a ‘Cuse fan.

Still, some problem areas persist (though certainly not many), and some tweaks need to be made if the Orange want to push beyond the Sweet Sixteen and into the Final Four for the first time since 2003.

SU’s rebounding issues aren’t exactly new. All season, the Orange have been atrocious on the glass, especially defensively. While the team has shown signs of life in this area with strong performances against Louisville, St. John’s, and UConn, those outings have been in the minority when it comes to cleaning up misses, especially on the defensive end. This late in the season, it’s tough to see this problem going away, and one has to wonder just how far the Orange can advance in an environment where the competition stiffens by the game. While a drastic turnaround doesn’t seem likely at this point, there’s another weakness that is much more fixable.

The team needs a lift from its guards. Aside from his performance in the team’s win over UConn, Dion Waiters has lost his shot over the last month. Even if you include that game, he’s shot a measly 35.5% from the floor in his last eight times out, well below his season average of 47.6%. In fairness to Waiters, this is his first season playing a prominent role in the rotation and fatigue may be setting in, but the more likely scenario is that this is just a slump. I’m not spelling doom, because as poorly as Waiters has shot it, recent history indicates that he can not only snap out of the funk. Last season, Waiters endured a frosty 14-57 skid over ten games in the middle of the season to finish 23-41 from the floor in his last six games, capped by a team-leading 18 points in the Orange’s season-ending loss to Marquette, so one encouraging sign is that there’s a precedent here. Let’s hope he turns it back around soon.

Brandon Triche, meanwhile, is in the midst of one of his patented hibernating periods. Since the Orange exorcised the Pitt demon back on January 16, Triche has shot better than 50% in just one game, and it’s been six weeks since the junior hit more than two threes. We know he can run hot and cold – not unlike Andy Rautins in his first three seasons – but while playing time has been inconsistent, he hasn’t exactly done enough to prove that he should be out there more often. He’s still an incredibly value player in cases where SU needs to hold onto a close lead, though – he leads the team with an 86% free throw clip.

While a remaining slate of a feisty South Florida team, the talented Huskies and the always-tough Cardinals isn’t your run-of-the-mill tuneup set, the Orange have some loose ends still to sew up. While it’s tough to say with any confidence whether the Orange will become even an acceptable rebounding team, it may not matter if the tandem of Triche and Waiters start hitting shots again.

Monday Notes

February 20, 2012 Leave a comment

There’s plenty to go over today after the Orange escaped the RAC with a ten-point win that was much closer than the score would indicate. Let’s get to it!

  • The talk of Jim Boeheim using an expanded rotation has calmed over the last few weeks, as only seven (occasionally eight) players have played significant roles in non-blowout games. I’ve mentioned it before in this space, but the argument of who should start and who should come off the bench is something of a fool’s errand, as the overall distribution of minutes is more important. While there’s some validity to the argument that Rakeem Christmas starting and being lucky to make it past the first media timeout makes the team sluggish out of the gate, who’s to say that C.J. Fair would take well to starting on a consistent basis when all we have to go on is the three average performances he turned in when Fab Melo was suspended? None of it matters, at least not this season. Starting versus coming off the bench is a matter of semantics in Fair’s case. He’s played at least 35 minutes in each of the last four games and has actually received more playing time in the last six games than every starter except Kris Joseph.
  • Sunday was a banner day for C.J. Fair. He had 14 points and six rebounds in the first half alone, and finished with a career-high 21 and eight. What I found most astounding is the incredibly efficient fashion in which Fair sculpted his game, taking just eight shots from the floor and doing most of his damage from the free throw line. Unofficially, he is the first ‘Cuse player to score at least 20 points on so few shots since Preston Shumpert in November 2001. While many of his attempts were within five feet of the hoop – we didn’t see much of the mid-range jumper – many of them had a degree of difficulty to factor in. Before moving on, I also wanted to point out that contributing to the efficiency was the fact that Fair didn’t turn the ball over a single time. The ability to hold onto the ball is something Fair has proven he can do on a game-to-game basis, but I feel like I’ve taken that part of his skill set for granted. He’s had just one outing with three turnovers, and has coughed it up a paltry total of four times in his last 200 minutes played. That kind of ball control, plus his rebounding ability, makes Fair a multi-layered threat, and it showed in the second half as Rutgers threatened in the second half. After Syracuse climbed to a six-point lead just after halftime, the Scarlet Knights battled back to bring the deficit to two. After the intermission, Fair went quiet. He didn’t attempt a shot until he hit a three with 13:38 remaining to up the SU lead from two to five. Less than two minutes later, he finished on a lob from Jardine, but wouldn’t record another shot attempt the rest of the way. He ripped two late steals and iced the game with some free throws to prove his value, but I couldn’t help but think that the game could have been put out of reach a little earlier if only the Orange looked his way more often.
  • That’s admittedly a little picky of me to say, considering how Syracuse was outworked inside. Even with Fair having a nice day on the glass, the Orange were out-rebounded by Gilvydas Biruta and Dane Miller. SU’s rebounding troubles are out in the open, but we haven’t seen the team struggle defending the paint like this in some time. Normally, Melo patrols the lane well on his own, only occasionally needing help, but Biruta got to the hole almost whenever he wanted. While Melo had to deal with some early foul trouble, it wasn’t an issue all game, so to see him recoil throughout the afternoon like he did was a little disappointing.
  • He probably shouldn’t be this low on the bullet list, but after putting up a stinker in Louisville to follow up possibly the best game of his career, Scoop Jardine was excellent against Rutgers. Despite the tense feeling we all get when he takes a shot we don’t anticipate, he has a ton of confidence in himself and it’s easy to see how well the rest of the team works with him when he’s on. He craves the spotlight, but he won’t scurry away when he does something costly. Jardine’s horrible free throw shooting doesn’t make me feel that great about him handling the ball when the team has a lead to protect, but on the flip side, it’s bad enough that it’s not a question.
  • People much closer to the team than I have witnessed firsthand the way Jardine leads in the locker room to go along with what we see in games. While the stat community tends to be quick to dismiss, or at least devalue the things it can’t see in a box score (such as leadership in the locker room or in practice), it’s tough to deny that there’s something to Jardine’s demeanor that impacts everyone around him.

The season has absolutely flown by. Only three more weeks until Selection Sunday!

Defense Carries Orange To Win

February 14, 2012 Leave a comment

There’s no denying that last night’s putrid display of offense bordered on unwatchable. SU’s guards stunk up the joint as Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters and Brandon Triche combined to go just 7-29 from the floor, but they were not alone. All night. the team hit just one shot from outside the paint, a three from Waiters, and while neither team did itself any favors, the onslaught of whistles from Jim Burr made it nearly impossible for both the Orange and Cardinals to establish momentum for a huge majority of the game.

But despite all the ugliness, Syracuse won in Louisville for the first time in five trips south and the first time in seven attempts against the Cardinals overall, and that’s the bottom line. A performance like this on offense in the NCAA Tournament is liable to get Syracuse bounced, because better teams will be able to convert offensive rebounds into points and hold onto the ball enough to put a few more points on the board. On the bright side, though – there just aren’t many teams in the country who can go into one of its conference’s toughest road environments on just one day of rest, shoot 34% from the field, have its best player battle foul trouble, have its other senior leader put up a goose egg in the scoring column, rebound less than 60% of the other team’s misses… and still come out on top. This is no recipe for sustainable success, but the team did prove that it can win ugly, with so much going against it. While you could look at the Georgetown game and come to the same conclusion, last night’s scoring struggles made last Wednesday look like the silky-smooth offense of the 2009-10 Orange.

SU escaped the KFC Yum! Center with the win by doing what it’s done best when the shots haven’t fallen (and usually when they have, too): Holding onto the ball, slamming the offensive boards, hitting free throws – something that probably deserves its own post – and turning over the other team. For some perspective, Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva combined for ten turnovers, two more than Syracuse’s total as a team, and six consecutive defensive stops for the Orange allowed it to claw back after falling behind by five in the final minutes – no small deficit after remembering that SU scored just 46 before holding the Cardinals at bay.

We also learned that after rotating players at will for the first half of the season and into the early part of conference play, this team’s rotation has circled back around to the old standard of 7.5 players when it comes to close games. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but the sooner we can stop calling Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita key cogs in Jim Boehiem’s rotation just because they take up space, the better off everyone will be. We’re back to the familiar 7.5-man group, with Dion Waiters and C.J. Fair entering games around the same time and James Southerland getting anywhere from 5 to 25 minutes of run every game. While we know that this team has ten players capable of making an impact, all ten won’t always get the opportunity, but they also don’t need to for the team to win.

After sweeping the most intense portion of its schedule, the Orange have clinched an outcome no worse than a first-round bye in the Big East Tournament and a top-four finish in the standings. Things will lighten up from here with the team idle until Sunday, when it faces Rutgers in a typically friendly atmosphere in Piscataway followed by a home date against the upstart South Florida Bulls.

Monday Morning Catch-Up

February 13, 2012 Leave a comment

As Syracuse continues to roll through the toughest part of its, schedule, today is a good time to pause and look at some of the recent highlights, especially those that surfaced in the Orange’s big win over UConn Saturday. Of course, the Huskies’ season has been something of a nightmare between the lack of chemistry on the court and Jim Calhoun’s health issues keeping him off the sidelines. Credit UConn for battling hard until a backbreaking 22-6 run to close the game did the Huskies in for good. While casual observers may take look at the box score and see that SU’s walk-ons ran off the final minute of the game, it was definitely closer than the final score would leave one to believe.

  • Scoop Jardine turned in a spectacular performance, going 8-9 from the floor while leading the team with 21 points, including two late threes in front of the ‘Cuse bench to gain separation from Connecticut. He also had a great game as a distributor with six assists and just one turnover, bringing his A/TO ratio to 51:14 over the last nine games.  At the beginning of the season, I thought Jardine was a known commodity as an erratic point guard who was just as a capable of being a liability as he was a scoring threat. After going 1-7 from the field against Georgetown, this was a very good bounceback effort. With Brandon Triche getting some splinters from riding the bench, we may just have to let it ride with Scoop.
  • Don’t look now, but Kris Joseph is shooting 60% from three in his last two games following a horrid 3-27 stretch. Oddly enough, he was 1-7 inside the arc Saturday, and it’s worth noting that he played 80 minutes against Georgetown and UConn, and with a quick turnaround to play Louisville tonight, it will be interesting to see if he shows any signs of fatigue. But if he does…
  • …I think we’ll be able to rest easy after C.J. Fair played the best game of his career in an Orange uniform on Saturday. I’ve brought this up a few times, but it still bears repeating: While I can understand why the comparison is easy to make, Fair is capable of a much better career than Josh Pace when all is said and done, and he’s well on his way – Fair posted a double-double in conference play as a sophomore, whereas Pace’s only double-double came against St. Bonaventure in his senior campaign. If 33,000 people saw the same thing I did Saturday, I’d like to think fans can move past the similarities and respect Fair for the player he is. While Pace gets a little more cache in the eyes of some for the role he played in SU’s championship run, I think Fair can open even more eyes if he gets the opportunity next month.
  • Staying with the frontcourt discussion, if Fab Melo can continue to step back and hit 15-18-foot jumpers, it will be that much harder for defenses to stay on him. With no real post moves to speak of, most of Melo’s scoring has come off pick-and-rolls and offensive rebounds. I don’t know how comfortable Jim Boeheim feels about Melo stepping out (he expressed some displeasure not too long ago), but I’m sure his tune will change if he keeps hitting them.
  • While Connecticut and Louisville haven’t been nearly as formidable as most thought at the start of the season, we saw Saturday that the Huskies can hang with any team when things click, and Louisville has quietly won seven of its last eight games after sliding to the middle of the Big East standings.  The Orange got one monkey off their back last month when Pitt was dispatched at the Dome for the first time since 2003, and now the team will try to win at Louisville for just the second time in the regular season since the Cardinals joined the Big East.

Focus On The Present

February 9, 2012 Leave a comment

From 900 Irving HQ in Kansas City, all I heard about last week was the acrimony between Missouri and Kansas leading up to Saturday’s win by the Tigers in Columbia. Missouri, as you probably know, announced it was bolting to the SEC so it wouldn’t be caught without a seat in the game of Conference Musical Chairs. Until the Big 12 secured commitments from West Virginia and later TCU, the league was left twisting in the wind, and partially because of that, Kansas has all but vowed to not schedule the Tigers for the foreseeable future. By their rationale, Kansas can survive as one of the top five programs in college basketball and doesn’t need to throw its soon-to-be-former conference rival a bone to stay at its current status.

I’d like to think that the Syracuse-Georgetown relationship isn’t quite at that level, that when Syracuse leaves for the ACC, this series can continue on some level. That Georgetown doesn’t have a BCS football program to bolster its perception probably gives the school less leverage to turn down a surefire cash haul like a rotating date with Syracuse every season. In addition, while Georgetown is a proud and storied program, it doesn’t have nearly the cache that Kansas has that allows its brass to be so selective in its scheduling.

However, since it’s impossible to be certain, the best thing we can do as Orange fans is relish the latest chapter in the rivalry, a heart-stopping overtime win in front of 30,000-plus at the Loud House. It was a classic SU-Georgetown tilt filled with more generous contact, loose ball scrums, and blocked shots than finesse plays and huge runs. Syracuse was once again atrocious in the rebounding department, especially defensively. The Hoyas grabbed over half of their own misses, when the norm for most teams is about 30%. The Orange forced plenty of bad shots (the Hoyas shot 33% and rarely got open looks), but SU just couldn’t close out possessions by controlling the glass. This is by far the team’s Achilles heel and one thing that will have my attention Saturday against Connecticut is whether the guards help out rather than anticipating fast break opportunities from the three-point line.

With the guard play being unusually inefficient outside of Scoop Jardine, it was left to the frontcourt to get the job done. Fab Melo looked very comfortable in the paint on defense, taking down seven rebounds to go along with six blocks and one Mutombo finger-wag. The emotion he showed would probably have earned him a technical, but the referees didn’t impose their will on the game the way others would (more on that later). He also played well on offense, but Kris Joseph was the man who carried the Orange and seared his name into the memories of Syracuse and Georgetown fans alike. He set career highs with 29 points and six made threes, none more important than the go-ahead triple with 26 seconds left in overtime. We saw Joseph take the Cincinnati game over for a short stretch, but to see him do it against a better team like Georgetown when contributions from most of the team couldn’t be counted on was highly encouraging. Obviously, the aim will be for the balanced efforts we’re used to, but as the rest of the schedule reflects big tests, the odds are no worse than decent that another demand for a takeover presents itself.

Now, regarding the officiating style, there was nary a peep in my Twitter feed about the crew of Bob Donato, Joe Lindsay and Sean Corbin. Maybe they got the brief about how these teams like to push each other around within reason and aren’t hesitant to initiate contact, but I think a more significant cause for the consistent officiating was the relaxes workloads. Thanks to the inimitable StatSheet.com, we know that Donato, the head official, worked just his second game since January 28. Lindsay had three of four days away from games before calling Maryland’s game against Clemson Tuesday and traveling to Syracuse for last night’s game. Corbin, a relative newbie, hasn’t worked back-to-back days since February 1. It was a welcome break from the games played before  the hotel point and airline mile-hoarding referees we’re used to seeing. If you don’t think fresh legs make a difference, I’ll be happy to point you back to the schedules.

We don’t know the long-term future of the Syracuse-Georgetown rivalry. In the short term, it’s possible we’ll see a rematch at Madison Square Garden. Unless you’re Arinze Onuaku or a member of the 2000 team that was erased by an underwhelming group of Hoyas, it’d be tough not to hope for it to happen. Until then, the best thing to do is relish the present and continue to enjoy the wild ride.