SU Wins, But Are Its Struggles A Sign Of Things To Come?
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.