It was Nov. 15, roughly six weeks ago, when Syracuse Jim Boeheim went on a rant that has come to define the Syracuse season.
“Right now,” Boeheim said, “we are the most overrated team I have ever had.”
It was a significant statement, given Boeheim’s 30-plus years at the helm of the Orange.
Even though the then-No. 10 Syracuse defeated Canisius, 86-67, to move the Orange to 4-0, Syracuse didn’t look like a team that deserved its ranking. Syracuse was struggling in all aspects of its game, specifically shooting and rebounding.
The poster child game came two games later against William and Mary. Syracuse was sluggish throughout the entire game and shot just 37 percent from the field and 5-for-22 from 3-point land while giving up 10 offensive rebounds. It narrowly escaped with a 63-60 win. This, of course, did nothing to appease Boeheim.
“We’re not playing good basketball, we haven’t played good basketball,” he said. “Most people don’t make a judgment on your team until you lose. Coaches have to make that judgment long before you lose.”
Boeheim was mostly judging his untested bench.
There, Boeheim was left with few attractive options at the time. There was James Southerland, who was shooting 20 percent from 3-point land. There was Dion Waiters, who struggled to keep his assignments on defense. Even his prized starting center, Fab Melo, was underperforming and consistently in foul trouble.
“Give me a guy that has done something on our team,” Boeheim said. “One thing, we don’t have one player that has done one thing, coming off of the bench. The only guys that we have on our team that have done anything are Brandon (Triche), Scoop (Jardine), Ricky (Jackson) and Kris Joseph. They have done something. And when they struggled in the first half tonight, we struggled.”
Even Jardine, ever the optimist, agreed.
“We just have to get better as a team,” Jardine said. “We have to grow up fast. We’re still immature in a lot of ways, just still making some bad mistakes. We just need to find a way to grow up fast.”
And in a few short weeks, that’s exactly what the Orange did.
Signs of improvement
The turning point may have been when then-No. 7 Orange defeated then-No. 8 Michigan State 72-58 at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 7.
Everything seemed to fall into place that night. Syracuse shot 44 percent from the field against a good Spartan defense. The Orange was plus eight in rebounding. Its defense stifled and frustrated Michigan State into 37 percent shooting.
More importantly, Boeheim went with a short rotation, playing just Waiters, C.J. Fair and Baye Moussa Keita off the bench. All three were effective, specifically Keita, who played 27 minutes in relief of the foul-troubled Melo.
Afterward, the Orange’s biggest critic wasn’t so critical.
“This was a good win for us,” Boeheim said. “I don’t think we played really well offensively, yet I think we can get there but we are not there yet; but no one is there yet, it is early on in the year.”
Since then, the Orange has played more to its ranking.
It culminated in Syracuse’s final non-conference game against Drexel. If there was a measuring stick for how far Syracuse had come, this was it.
Syracuse shot 63 percent from the field. It was 5-for-12 from downtown. The Orange outrebounded a team that had averaged a plus-12 edge over other opponents, 35-24. Boeheim’s team turned the ball over just nine times.
“We are doing much better,” Joseph said. “Our younger guys are learning and our veterans are stepping up. I think every night someone else is stepping up in every department, whether it is vocally, or on the scoreboard.”
Said Jackson: “I think we have matured so much. We have a lot of young guys that are working hard. They spend a lot of time in the gym getting shots up, and I am really proud of these guys.”
So too, was Boeheim.
“You can’t play better than that,” Boeheim said. “It’s is just a case of our entire team coming together. We’re playing balanced with an inside presence. Our guards have been making shots and getting to the basket.”
It was a coach who sounded completely different from the coach who stood on the same podium just six short weeks ago.
It couldn’t have happened at a better time. Syracuse will get tested immediately in conference play. On Tuesday, it will face off against Providence, which is 16th in the NCAA in scoring at 81 points per game. Following that, it will have to play No. 23 Notre Dame before playing Cincinnati, which has yet to lose a game.
“Looking around the league, everyone is playing great,” Boeheim said. “It is as good as our league has ever been at this stage of the year. Five teams in the top 10, three or four more teams that are right there. I told the players that we are playing well, but we’re going to have to play as well or even better once we get back up here and start conference play. But we are in as good of a position as we could be right now.”
Wesley Cheng is the Editor-in-Chief for The Juice Online.Wesley Cheng