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Round Of 32 Wrap-Up

March 19, 2012 Leave a comment

There’s a ton of storylines to sort through in the wake of Syracuse’s win over Kansas State that propelled them to their third Sweet 16 in four seasons. After a whirlwind few days of college hoops, we get to decompress and look forward to Saturday’s game with Wisconsin, but we have all week for that. Onward to some notes!

  • As you probably recall, Jamar Samuels was a late scratch from the game due to an eligibility issue which was later revealed to be an accepted wire transfer of $200 from his AAU team’s founder. The absence of the Wildcats’ leading rebounder partially allowed Rakeem Christmas to have a career game, but I’ll have more on that in a bit. The decision to hold Samuels out of the game came from Athletic Director John Currie, and if you watched head coach Frank Martin’s postgame press conference, he became very emotional when asked about the situation and it was also easy to see that he was not the least bit happy with Currie’s decision. It’s easy to watch Martin scream his face off during games and come to the conclusion that his intensity is a little much, and that may be true, as he’s seen some players transfer away. But then he shows the kind of emotion he displayed in his locker room, and you see how hard he defends his players. While it’s rarely reported, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that other players get away with more egregious violations; In fact, I almost expect that it happens way more often than we hear about. That’s not to excuse Samuels from any blame here. This couldn’t have come at a worse time, and his eligibility may have been the difference between Kansas State winning and losing. Alas, we’ll never know.
  • The Orange were pounded on the defensive glass, as expected, but K-State’s failure to capitalize on second chances really set them back. The back line of SU zone did a better job as the game went on, especially once Syracuse woke up. During SU’s 21-3 run, the Wildcats picked up five offensive rebounds, but three of them came on the same sequence, and even then, Kansas State didn’t score on those extra opportunities. In the second half, Syracuse shot so well that despite its size, the rebounding gap didn’t really emerge as a big factor, but instead was more of a footnote.
  • Christmas, on the other hand, was definitely a factor, and in a big way, chipping in eight points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. Even without Samuels, Kansas State still had a long and bulky frontcourt, so to see him have this kind of success was great to see. It’s tough to build confidence and get into a rhythm when you have as short a leash as Christmas had before the Fab Melo news came along, but he certainly didn’t play like a freshman Saturday. Christmas topped Melo’s career high in rebounds while posting Melo’s season averages in points and blocks. That doesn’t mean I think Christmas is better than Melo – it’s important to remember Samuels’ absence and Jordan Henriquez’s foul trouble in the second half, but I do think it’s a piece of evidence to combat the perception that Melo’s loss tanked the Orange’s chances of a deep run. Simply put, they play different styles of defense, and both have helped Syracuse tremendously at different points in the season – Melo succeeds in blocking shots and taking charges, while Christmas crashes the glass more often, but can still swat the ball with the best of them. As Christmas’ saw more and more bench time, it became easy for some to forget that he was the best center in his recruiting class not named Anthony Davis.
  • Scoop Jardine continued his streak of hot and cold halves, but again delivered when the team needed it most. Jardine shot 1-5 from the floor in the two first halves of the weekend, but 7-11 after halftime. He had a hand in nearly every possession of SU’s backbreaking run in the second half and even snagged a few boards of his own. It takes Scoop some time to see what teams are trying to get him to do, but he’ll make adjustments and never lets his mistakes get in his head, no matter how high they pile up. As the competition increases, though, so will the necessity of Jardine stringing together consecutive strong halves increases.
  • One player who hasn’t had much inconsistency to speak of has been James Southerland, who is a scorching 11-14 from the field in the tournament and 5-7 from deep. Additionally, many of those threes have been absolutely demoralizing for Asheville and Kansas State. He’s given the team a huge lift with C.J. Fair struggling to get rolling. I’ve been pumping Fair all season, so to see him have this kind of tournament has been tough, but the team’s depth remains one of the biggest storylines. I’m not convinced that both of them have to be effective for Syracuse to go deep since they’re rarely on the floor together, but I’d feel better about SU’s chances of Fair returned to midseason form this weekend. This is way down the line, but next season’s battle to determine who gets Kris Joseph’s starting spot could be very interesting, especially if Southerland keeps the hot hand and puts in rebounding numbers comparable to what Fair has produced. Tangentially, I think one of Jim Boeheim’s most redeeming qualities is that he’s not married to one player over another at a given position as long as he has the depth – whoever plays well will stay in the game, and as easy as it looks to him and us to make that call, that’s not always the case.
  • This doesn’t have much to do with the game itself, but I will say that it was a relief to see Syracuse’s win start the weekend. It made it that much easier to simply sit back and enjoy the rest of the action knowing that the team’s spot on Saturday was guaranteed. As the round of 32 rained upsets, I would have been on pins and needles if the Orange had played later. Now, I enjoy the sport enough that I’ll watch just about any game, but getting Syracuse early on Saturday just made the rest of the weekend more enjoyable. Of course, I’d probably be singing a different tune if the Orange lost, but fortunately, that will remain a hypothetical.
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SU Wins, But Are Its Struggles A Sign Of Things To Come?

March 16, 2012 Leave a comment

While I’ll take an ugly, ugly win over a well-played loss any day of the week – especially in a single-elimination setting – yesterday’s win over UNC Asheville was anything but inspiring. I’ll get into the egregious officiating a little later on, but if this is the way Syracuse plays on Saturday, it’s going to be a short stay in Bracketville. Getting a taste of its own medicine, the Orange looked listless for 30 minutes facing a zone where the tallest player was roughly the same height as Michael Carter-Williams. In the first half, SU’s seniors, along with James Southerland, combined for four points, and it’s no coincidence that the team trailed for most of that time. The team looked completely petrified of driving into the defense, perhaps partially due to a few touch fouls on C.J. Fair and Brandon Triche. The already-extended halftime intermission seemed to drag on even longer than that as the college basketball Twitterverse noticed, wondering if it was real.

Eventually, of course, the team rallied behind Southerland, who scored 13 points in the second half, each shot larger than the last, and the Orange made their free throws down the stretch. In my opinion, the team’s success at the line has been an overlooked element to the season. There are several stories rightfully taking precedent, but you might be surprised to know that Syracuse’s 69.2% success rate from the charity stripe is its highest since the 2006-07 season. Entering yesterday’s game, the top four players on the team in attempts were shooting a combined 76.6%, which has greatly helped to suppress Scoop Jardine’s pedestrian 52.5% clip. I’ve talked before in this space about how close games generally don’t portend success, but when a team can pull games out with the kind of success at the line that Syracuse has enjoyed, it can make all the difference in the world, and we saw that yesterday.

The Orange made eight of their nine attempts over the last minute and a half, though two came as a direct result of J.P. Primm’s lane violation when Jardine missed the front end of a one-and-one. If Jardine hadn’t kept the team ahead and the referees had made the correct out-of-bounds call on Brandon Triche, it may have been Syracuse fouling at the end of the game in a desperate attempt to save their season and avoid monstrous embarrassment. Yes, the officiating was terrible on both ends. The controversial inbounds pass late in the game absolutely was last touched by Brandon Triche, and whether the hip-check on him by UNC Asheville player should have been called can be reasonably debated. The narrative will say that every significant call down the stretch broke in Syracuse’s favor, and for that reason, UNC Asheville was denied a fair shot at an upset, but poor calls broke both ways. Triche should have had the opportunity to convert an and-one at the end of the first half, and a poor call on a goaltend by Baye Keita was among several questionable whistles and non-whistles. I do think Eddie Biedenbach had every right to express his dismay after the game. Mid-majors like UNC Asheville who come from one-bid leagues have evolved in quality to the point where they have no regard for the “happy to be here” card. On the other hand, while “that’s why they make scoreboards” is perhaps the glibbest quote from Jim Boeheim I’ve ever come across, his point remains valid – you can play your best game for 40 minutes, but if you still come up short, the scoreboard will shed no tears for you. The media and casual fans might, but they don’t determine who goes on and whose season ends; it’s why no one cares for weekly polls once the tournament tips.

And yet, Jim Boeheim’s coaching job yesterday was downright confounding. Listening to a radio hit the other day, a college basketball pundit (I can’t remember who) said that Syracuse has been playing the wrong way, considering its personnel. That sounds bonkers when you remember that Syracuse has 30 wins and counting before the end of the first weekend of the tournament, but he had a valid point. With a roster as long, athletic and talented as Syracuse’s, more pressure defense would help the Orange get even more points in the transition sequences on which they thrive so much. Thursday, the team was content to let the Bulldogs walk the ball up the court and fire at will from the perimeter.

Until Southerland took control of the game and the Bulldogs became tired, the Orange seldom made UNC Asheville work for their shots. On offense, Syracuse chucked at will, looking like Florida or Missouri on a bad day. Fab Melo may be gone, but the inside game is still Syracuse’s bread and butter, whether it’s the guards driving and finishing, getting into the lane and kicking it out or picking and rolling. As I mentioned before, maybe the Orange were afraid of getting whistled for fouls, but when you miss and miss again from the perimeter, it’s time to change things up. When the Orange went on a 14-6 run to take the lead in the second half, only one of the five shots Syracuse hit came from behind the three-point line.

“Survive and advance” is the name of the game, and in that regard, the Orange are winning, but I’m also hoping the near-miss lit a fire in the team’s collective belly that will lead to greater focus and more successful execution on offense against Kansas State. Largely, Kansas State relies on turnovers and offensive rebounds to produce offense, which means second chances will be hard to come by for Syracuse. It would be great to see SU’s zone shut down the Wildcats, who don’t have a ton to offer offensively. Frank Martin’s team has just one player, Rodney McGruder, who averages more than ten points per game. Though he’s been hot lately, averaging 21.8 points over his last eight games, his shot has been known to disappear, as he did over eight games in conference play when he shot 32.4% from the floor.

While the Orange ultimately got the job done Thursday, that was one sour taste left in Syracuse fans’ mouths. Hopefully, this was just a one-game case of the team thinking it would coast, and not the first sign of a collapse.

Moving On Without Melo

March 14, 2012 Leave a comment

Just when this season couldn’t get any wilder.

With memories of Arinze Onuaku still fresh in everyone’s minds, yesterday’s news of Fab Melo’s ineligibility delivered a major blow to Syracuse’s title chances. In the span of a few minutes, the Orange went from having an excellent shot at the Final Four and beyond to a team that some experts predict to get bounced before it gets to Boston. The margin for error, already razor-thin in a tournament setting, just became thinner.

Reports on the specific reasons behind SU’s decision to keep Melo in Syracuse are conflicting, and because this is an academic issue, privacy laws prohibit the school from speaking publicly on the matter. It’s not likely that we’ll learn the details anytime soon, so all we can do as fans is keep the hope alive and exchange ideas on how the team can withstand its latest challenge entering the most important part of the season.

While I’m all for optimism, I’m not here to tell you that Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita will fill in without missing a beat. Despite Melo’s production of 7.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, it’s not very realistic to plug in a pair of role players for the Big East Defensive Player of the Year and expect a seemless transition. Melo’s defensive prowess extended beyond taking charges and blocking shots. Opposing players who try to shoot over or around him did so with very little success, hitting on just 29.1% of attempts from the field, and he had a knack for playing excellent defense without fouling.

The Orange are still plenty deep, but consistency becomes more important than it was before yesterday’s new came down the pipe. With the exception of tomorrow’s opener against UNC Asheville, the days of Syracuse winning despite two or three regulars laying eggs are numbered. So how can the Orange adjust to keep their chances at their best while limiting the damage? I’m glad you asked. The answer may surprise you, but with the construction of SU’s DNA altered, its style may have to undergo some fairly significant changes.

The 2-3 zone isn’t going anywhere, but I see a more uptempo style potentially suiting the available personnel very well. Fab Melo did many things well on defense. The one thing he didn’t do as well was run the floor. This team still boasts top-notch athleticism and a deep rotation at every other spot on the floor. Some 3/4-court press could generate enough turnovers to make up for the possessions lost in the disappearance of Melo’s blocks and charges taken. While I may be down on Baye Keita more than any SU blogger (do I get a trophy for that, by the way?), he can recover when the press is broken by running like a gazelle back to his spot, something Melo could never dream of doing even after dropping 30 pounds. The starting center may be gone, but this isn’t 2010. Rakeem Christmas and Keita have the experience that DaShonte Riley painfully lacked, even if Keita has regressed. This intensity of this system may also require a more liberal substitution pattern for the backcourt, and this is an area where the Orange could maximize its strengths, as Michael Carter-Williams can excel alongside Dion Waiters, Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine, all very good defenders in their own rights.

An even friskier option may be to scrap the idea of having two big men on the court on the same time altogether. This isn’t as exotic as one might think, after seeing C.J. Fair, generously listed at 6’8″, man one of the wings all season. However, given the probable matchups against Kansas State and Vanderbilt in the later rounds, these slower teams could be overwhelmed by Syracuse’s athleticism with a few tweaks to the rotation. There is a downside that I’d be remiss not to note, and that is the risk of foul trouble putting the Orange in deeper trouble than they already are with such a tight style. Pressing inherently involves closer positioning, and it also increases the number of possessions, which means fouls can be accumulated in just a few possessions. Keita is especially foul-prone; in a larger role, he’d have to be careful, and depending on the officiating, things can get dicey pretty quickly, but it may be worth the risk.

Priority number one remains getting past 16-seed UNC Asheville and avoiding the legacy as the answer to a trivia question for years to come. I think it’s important to get out to a comfortable lead early Thursday so the team can mix and match strategies in an effort to find one that works going into the next round. Unlike Kansas State and Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs play a small lineup, so there’s no guarantee that any strategy that does the job against Asheville would hold serve in the later rounds. Expectations will have to be tempered, which is a realization that’s tough to come to grips with, but if Keita and Christmas can have some success early and build confidence, we may see a revitalization as the Orange march on.

Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing

March 12, 2012 Leave a comment

The most wonderful time of the year is finally here. I love the dedication that people like Andy Glockner, Jeff Borzello, Zach Hayes and others put into projecting the bracket, but there’s nothing like seeing the real thing revealed. The age of social media has led to an explosion in the popularity of speculation and predictions (or maybe it just created an additional avenue for such discussion), and that’s exemplified in the non-stop bubble watches, brackets and everything else that comes with March Madness. While it’s fun to look back and see how everyone fared in their predictions and what factors the selection committee ultimately valued, the authenticity of the genuine article is what gets me hooked the most.

Looking at Syracuse’s draw in the East region, there are only a few teams that concern me in the early going. Of course, every school that’s in the tournament is there for a reason, and all the at-large teams have strengths. In the East, the common thread is defense, which isn’t the best of news when you consider how vulnerable the Orange has looked offensively as of late. Florida State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Kansas State and, yes, even Harvard can turn games into slugfests. The Seminoles and Buckeyes stand out the most from that group, but fortunately for Syracuse, they live in the bottom half of the region, which means that only one (or neither) of those teams can come face-to-face with the Orange in a potential regional final. Since the Orange won’t run into anyone from the bottom half of the East bracket unless they get to the Elite Eight, I thought it would be a better use of time to just look at the teams in the top half for now:

  • #16 UNC Asheville: A one-seed has never lost to a 16-seed. I’m a big fan of J.P. Primm, but it’s not happening. If we get into discussing the possibility of the school formerly known as UNCA turning the trick, it becomes fair game to debate such scenarios as Michael Bay getting out of the explosions business and venturing into romantic comedies, and I don’t think anyone wants that.
  • #8 Kansas State: After the bracket was revealed, there was some early discussion based on the potential Kansas State-Syracuse matchup in the second round (I refuse to refer to the play-in games as “the first round.” Wanna fight about it?). Assuming both teams win their first games, they’ll meet on Saturday in Pittsburgh. The talk was rooted in Kansas State’s rebounding success matched up against the Orange’s failures on the glass. This season, Kansas State has rebounded 40.6% of its misses, a rate good for seventh in the country. A main reason why KSU has been so successful in this area is because they shoot with so much mediocrity (44.3% on the season) that oftentimes, the only way they can put points on the board is by sending everyone to follow shots and hoping someone can get a putback within five feet. The idea is that this could spell trouble for the Orange, who allowed its conference opponents to crash the offensive glass at will, but here’s the thing: In this department, Syracuse essentially transformed the entire Big East into Kansas State, yielding an offensive rebounding rate of 40.2% in conference play, but still went 17-1. It’s realistic to picture the Wildcats owning the Orange on the glass in what could be a very ugly game if it materializes, but as I’ve maintained ever since SU’s rebounding problems became apparent, it’s improbable that those issues on the glass alone will cost Syracuse its season.
  • #9 Southern Mississippi: Larry Eustachy returns to the tournament, and with a team that has one of the most nondescript profiles of any at-large team in the bracket. Southern Mississippi’s resume is far from impressive – its best win came against Memphis, and its three victories over major-conference teams (Mississippi, South Florida and Arizona State) don’t turn many heads. The Golden Eagles win by doing a few of the things that Syracuse does well: They don’t the ball over, they get steals on defense and hit the offensive glass, but that’s where the similarities end. Southern Miss shoots poorly and opposing teams don’t seem to have much trouble scoring as long as they can hold onto the ball. Of the four 8-9 matchups, I think this one spells the most trouble for the nine-seed.
  • #5 Vanderbilt: The Commodores are scary because of their strong shooting and could ride a wave of momentum all the way to New Orleans if they stay hot. John Jenkins is the best shooter in the tournament, but he’s just one of a few long-range assassins for Vandy – Brad Tinsley and Jeffery Taylor can also put up points in a hurry. If you’re looking for a team that can duplicate the hurt that Cincinnati put on SU in the first half on Friday night, look no further. Vanderbilt’s defense is just good enough that the Orange ought to take it seriously in a potential Sweet Sixteen matchup, but it’s nothing special, and came mostly as a result of going up against some really sloppy offenses in conference play. Outside of Vanderbilt, only Florida and Kentucky made the Big Dance out of the SEC with above-average efficiency on offense. If it comes to pass, this is the kind of game that Syracuse could lose by 15, but if the Commodores don’t hit their shots (see Vandy’s losses to Cleveland State, Indiana State, Louisville, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee), the Orange could cruise just as easily.
  • #12 Harvard: For most of the bubble season, Harvard stood a chance of getting in as an at-large in the event that they didn’t win their conference, which would be a rarity for an Ivy League team, but the Crimson won their conference on the last day of the season. Tommy Amaker’s team could get some love in bracket pools as the dreaded 12-seed that can upset a five-seed, and they do a lot of things well, including rebounding on the defensive end, hitting from inside the arc and at the free throw line. I’m not sure they can slow down the Commodores, but as I just discussed, an off night from them can give Harvard a decent shot at pulling the upset (crack analysis, I know). If they can advance, Harvard’s style isn’t as sluggish as Wisconsin’s, but it wouldn’t frustrate them the way it could others if they had to face the Badgers in the next round.
  • #4 Wisconsin: The Badgers play the kind of game that the Orange absolutely hates – the patented slow, make-every-possession-count style that Notre Dame and South Florida used to give SU fits earlier in the season. While Wisconsin has etched this reputation and drawn ire from fans across the country for playing such a boring style, it tends to work. However, when it doesn’t, the Badgers get a taste of their own medicine. In their first four conference games, the Badgers’ inability to hit generate offense neutralized the control they exerted on the defensive end. Bo Ryan’s team started 1-3 in the Big Ten this season, scoring less than one point per possession in all three losses, and went 4-8 on the year in conference play when it failed to crack a point per trip. Should the Badgers and Orange do battle, transition offense will be the key for SU.
  • #13 Montana: The Grizzlies got into the tournament the only way they could, by winning their conference tourney. The chances of them notching the two wins necessary to meet Syracuse in the Sweet 16 are remote at best, and there’s not much to discuss about their profile, but they have a nice blend of experience with young talent and a seven-footer manning the paint. Montana lost to a bad Pac-12 team by 25 in non-conference play, but scored an upset on the road over a better Long Beach State team back in November. In a slow-paced game like they’re bound to play against Wisconsin, one or two possessions could turn the tide, but an early exit is more likely.

Southerland Carries Orange Late

March 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Perhaps the most pervasive of the narratives following Syracuse’s season is the lack of a go-to guy, that this team has no Gerry McNamara, Jonny Flynn or Pearl Washington to look to when the game is on the line. All year long, different players have stepped up in key situations. Kris Joseph put the team on his back against the Hoyas; Scoop Jardine carried the load against the Huskies last month in the Carrier Dome; Brandon Triche came up big against Florida, Marquette and West Virginia; C.J. Fair led the Orange over Rutgers and Dion Waiters has has been splendid throughout the season.

Yesterday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, James Southerland became the latest to pen his own chapter by putting the Orange on top of the Huskies for good. His ten points won’t jump off the box score, but his contributions couldn’t have been more valuable. The junior sank four shots, all in the second half. The first was a three-pointer that cut the UConn from four to one, and after a blocked shot that eventually led to SU getting the lead, Southerland canned another three to extend the lead from one to four. He later sealed the game by sinking a long two before capping his surge with a pair of free throws.

Southerland has enjoyed some solid performances from the back of SU’s rotation, but not many. As you probably know, he wasn’t much of a factor at all in his first
two seasons with playing time coming at a premium. The athleticism and tools have always been there, but the opportunities to display them against live competition just weren’t coming. All that has changed this year. He’s improved, albeit at a different pace than some of his teammates, but still carved out great games against Villanova and Notre Dame and found ways to contribute in a handful of other matchups. He’s filled in nicely, but until yesterday, Southerland never had that takeover performance where he played a key role in an important win.

As the eighth man in the rotation, Southerland has never had that much pressure on him, but it was still a great experience to see him deliver against UConn, in front of a hometown crowd, no less. Despite Syracuse’s standing in the five boroughs, there’s been a relative shortage of New York City natives playing for the Orange in recent seasons. In the mid-80’s and 90’s, rosters were littered with guys like Pearl Washington, Wendell Alexis, Adrian Autry, Allen Griffin and Jason Cipolla, but ever since Louie McCroskey left the team in 2006, the Big Apple hasn’t borne a Syracuse regular.

Southerland’s emergence on Thursday came as a surprise, but it’s something we won’t soon forget.

Don’t Fear The Double-Bye

March 8, 2012 Leave a comment

If Jim Boeheim were to put out a “Greatest Hits” record featuring some of his most well-known quotes, there’d be plenty of moments from which to pick (there would also be a healthy collection of cover art options). There’s “The best team didn’t win tonight,” “Without Gerry McNamara, we wouldn’t have won ten (something-something) games,” “you don’t know your business” and much, much, more! The latest subject of Boeheim’s ire is the double-bye in the Big East Tournament, as he called it “The worst thing ever invented” after his team clinched the long break by beating UConn in Storrs.

Me? I don’t think it’s that bad at all – in fact, I kind of like it.

I will concede that the math is on Jim Boeheim’s side in this one if we’re speaking about the postseason, but a major caveat is that the sample size is limited to just 12 teams. In the short history of the double-bye in the Big East Tournament – just three years – Syracuse has held two double-byes, going 1-2 in the conference tournament and flaming out in The Big Dance before the second weekend. Digging deeper, the early exits haven’t just impacted the Orange. All four Big East teams to earn the double-bye at Madison Square Garden last season failed to make it to the Sweet 16, with Pitt, Notre Dame, Louisville and Syracuse all dropping early. In fact, six of the last eight double-bye recipients couldn’t crack the Sweet 16.

Still, that’s an awfully small sample size, and we don’t know what the correlation really is. That Boeheim himself fielded one of the exceptions (in 2009) while the other made it exactly where this season’s team is aiming for (West Virginia in 2010) casts enough doubt for me to resist the results as gospel. We also know that the Orange had the look of a Final Four team in 2010 until an unfortunate injury to Arinze Onuaku derailed national title hopes, so there is some noise in the numbers in the last two years. If you focus instead on the first year of the double-bye, Louisville advanced to the Elite 8 in 2009 and Villanova won a pair of games after watching the first two round of the Big East Tournament from afar. At the very least, we don’t know for sure if a straight-line correlation can be drawn between the double-bye and postseason success  – there just hasn’t been enough evidence to rule absolutely.

The other perceived knock on the double-bye is the idea that going without game action for five days somehow keeps the team tight. But in a much larger sample size, the math doesn’t add up. Last season, the Orange won its quarterfinal game against St. John’s on five days of rest. Lengthy breaks have actually been very generous to Syracuse in recent seasons – since the start of the 2009 season, the Orange are 31-5 when playing on four or more days of rest, including a 17-1 mark the last two years. Before doing the research, one assumption I had is that games around the holidays, which fall during the non-conference season, may bloat the numbers due to the opposition, but Syracuse has actually played some quality teams in those situations, such as Iona, NC State, Michigan and Florida – and beat them all. It seems to me that the bugaboo of the double-bye has been overblown by one freak injury and a UConn run unlike anything college basketball has ever seen.

This season, there’s no doubting that the Orange have the horses to win three games in three days before resting for a few more after Selection Sunday. The rotation appears to be set at its usual 7.5-man staff after flirting with ten, but unlike previous seasons, that doesn’t mean more players aren’t capable of making an impact. Beyond C.J. Fair and Dion Waiters, We continue to see flashes from James Southerland and Michael Carter-Williams, and despite his numerous shortcomings, Baye Keita can fill in capably if presented with the right matchup and at least has last season to cling to as evidence that he’s done it before. Three games in three days may be abnormal, and if they’re not close games that allow Boeheim to utilize the entirety of his vaunted bench, endurance can definitely be tested at Madison Square Garden.

But if the Orange lose this week, it won’t be because they sat around too long.

Yahoo! Comes Knocking

March 6, 2012 Leave a comment

College athletic programs enjoy calls from Charles Robinson the way I enjoy trips to the dentist, “Whitney” and Kevin James movies. No good can come of it, and Syracuse is no different.

I’m not all that bothered by the idea that a healthy chunk of SU players over the last ten years made some suspect decisions with their free time and what they chose to put in their bodies. These are college kids we’re talking about and some are always going to be inclined to test the boundaries. Considering these are public figures we’re talking about, that may rub some people the wrong way, but whether they like it or not, it’s reality.

Before getting into some of the possible ramifications, I wanted to give my opinion on the news process and how this story was “broken.” While Charles Robinson’s reputation precedes him, I find it galling that not a single source was willing to go on the record. Now, sometimes sources will only speak on condition of anonymity if what they have to say can have a significant impact, but this story doesn’t appear to have the blast radius that would lead so-called sources to tread so lightly. That the report prompted a response from Darryl Gross and an official statement from the school within about an hour leads me to believe that the story has legs, but I also think it will lead many to overlook the lack of on-record sources, and that’s unfortunate. In my eyes, the report can’t be characterized as thorough until we get a much firmer timeline and an accurate disclosure of who did what.

What’s most concerning to me about the Yahoo! Sports report are some of the inconsistencies involved. Both Gross and Jake Crouthamel, the two Syracuse AD’s in charge of the ship when positive drug tests came out, have affirmed them to some degree – Gross stated that the school reported the issue to the NCAA, and Crouthamel acknowledged that he received word on multiple failed drug tests during the period in question. For what it’s worth, the NCAA affirmed that the school has done everything right when it comes to reporting, so there is some  solace to be taken in that component of the story. That the report indicates that no current players aren’t involved also lends itself to a sigh of relief.

But when Jim Boeheim was asked about the failed drug tests, he declined to comment. I’d like to believe that Boeheim declined as a way of deferring to Gross, who is more directly tied to the NCAA’s investigation, but his quote stating “I didn’t know anything about it” is slightly troubling. While it isn’t as bad as a flat-out denial, it doesn’t seem consistent with Gross’ comments. Maybe I’m splitting hairs, and as I mentioned, it’s very possible that Boeheim was simply deferring to the man in charge, but to say that he didn’t know anything about it appears to fly in the face of everything Charles Robinson and Pat Forde turned up.

As for the potential penalties, it’s very difficult to see the NCAA come down on Syracuse as hard as it did on Baylor, as the original report invoked. Positive drug tests were just one peak on a mountain of misconduct in Waco, but they were just that – a part. There were about five or six more egregious things about Baylor at the time, capped by a murder cover-up. Lesser misgivings included payments by coaches to players, payments by coaches to recruits, and advice from coaches that boosters should funnel cash into organizations tied to AAU teams fielding Baylor prospects. If “all” Syracuse did was continue to play players after they tested positive for recreational drugs, the program could still be in some trouble, though not to the extremes that Baylor met. Still, the threat of vacating wins, potentially including the 2003 National Championship, will hover until the investigation is complete. I don’t think that’s what the future will come to, since Syracuse reported the indiscretions to Indianapolis, but suffice it to say that after a few months of quiet, Jim Boeheim’s press conferences are about to pick up.

If the team has been this successful at blocking out the buzz surrounding the Bernie Fine scandal, it’s pretty safe to assume they can handle this new element of scrutiny as the Orange enter the postseason. With that in mind, I’m not that worried about the story affecting the team as it continues its quest to New Orleans, but March just got madder.