Eight games into the season, the Syracuse basketball team is matching expectations: undefeated and a strong player on the national scene. For the second straight year, head coach Jim Boeheim is opting to use nine players for significant minutes and it certainly looks like that the quality of play down the bench will last.
The team, once again, is very active in the 2-3 zone, harassing opponents into mistakes. At the same time, the Orange have some flaws or, rather, some perceived flaws. The most frequently mentioned ones are the team does not shoot three-pointers well and lacks a true “go-to” guy on offense. Using last year’s team as a comparison, all these ideas will be addressed, including an unmentioned strength and a possible concern that has not come to light.
The Orange have used nine players in every game thus far and every one of them is averaging at least 11.9 minutes per game. Throughout his long tenure on “The Hill”, Boeheim frequently used seven players in his rotation, but last year lengthened his bench with strong results.
This year, the players occupying those last two spots in the rotation are Trevor Cooney and Jerami Grant. Cooney figured to be a lock for solid minutes in the rotation as the third guard, utilizing his year of experience in the SU system as a basis for his play. Cooney got off to a slow start offensively, but has since found his shooting stroke.
Even when he had a difficult time knocking down shots, his defensive effort still merited minutes, save for one glaring deficiency – a penchant for fouling on opponent fast breaks, but not delivering a hard enough blow to stop a basket from being scored. Cooney will stay in the rotation, especially if he cleans up that habit that chafes the head coach.
Grant, however, appeared to be a victim of a numbers game coming into the season. The true freshman seemed to be stuck where Michael Carter-Williams was last year – the new guy stuck behind a group of high-quality, experienced players at his defensive position. He’s sixth in line among the zone’s baseline defenders, but has relied on maximum effort to keep Boeheim calling his name.
When conference play is underway, however, he seems destined to fill the same role James Southerland did last year. Boeheim will likely send him in and stick with him if he provides an instant positive contribution. If Grant fails to do so, or worse, make a foolish error, he will likely be recalled to the pine.
The team’s defense has been stellar in the early portion of the season, averaging nearly 13 steals and nine blocked shots per game. Last year’s squad was close to those marks over their first eight contests, racking up 12.5 swipes and 6.4 swats per outing.
The length and activity of the guards and wings this season suggests that the team’s high ranking in steals, currently second in the nation, will be sustained over the long haul and the team will likely end up around last year’s mark of just over nine steals a game over the season.
Last season, the Orange ended up the year averaging just under seven blocks a night, but that total was still good enough to be second in the nation in block percentage. It is safe to say that this year’s version will likely settle below the same level as last year in quantity of blocked shots due to a lack of a dominant shotblocker such as Fab Melo, but if the maintain their block percentage rate, they should not see much of a loss.
Three-point shooting has been pointed out as the primary issue with this squad, but it has already been alleviated by the Orange turning in some strong performances in their last four games, from James Southerland’s nine bombs in Arkansas to the team splashing at least ten three balls in their last two outings (while Southerland did not connect from deep).
The team, which has already had six different players hit from deep, is still making under 32 percent from beyond the arc on the season in spite of coming around lately, but a little context tells a better story.
The team has had a few laughers this season, giving the walk-ons several opportunities to come in and display their wares. As their wares are often displayed, the non-scholarship players look to score, frequently on ill-advised hoists from deep.
So, while Nolan Hart, Griffin Hoffman, and Matt Lyde-Cajuste provide a valuable service in practice, their 0-for-8 shooting from deep is not doing the same in games. Setting those misses aside, the squad’s three-point shooting on the young season becomes a much more tolerable 33.3 percent. Even in the last four games where the team has picked up their efforts, removal of the five unsuccessful shots from the walk-ons in that span makes the Orange into pretty fair marksmen at 36.6 percent.
That mark, which would place them just outside the top quarter of the national rankings, includes a 5-for-22 stinker against Eastern Michigan, as well. Should Brandon Triche (30.6 percent) and Michael Carter-Williams (22.2 percent) pick up their contribution from deep, the Orange will be a strong perimeter shooting squad.
Prior to the season, the lack of a star player to lean on during crunch time was a perceived issue for the team. Last year, it became clear early on that, despite many national pundits being unaware of it, Dion Waiters could carry the offense late in games and Scoop Jardine would both take and make big shots in the waning seconds. (Let’s also remember Kris Joseph hit a game-winning trey in overtime against Georgetown.)
This year, Carter-Williams seems to have ascended to the position of go-to guy, particularly with the way he has been able to drive and either finish or find the open man. When a three-point shot is needed, be prepared for James Southerland to be involved just as Andy Rautins was during his senior season three years ago. Boeheim often called for designed plays for Rautins to get a quick look at a three coming off a screen and, with his length and shooting range, Southerland curling off a pick is a strong option in the waning seconds.
The unmentioned strength of this team? Free throw shooting. Yes, free throw shooting is a strength for a Syracuse team. It is true the 67.2 percent team-wide mark is not good, but a very likely crunch-time lineup for SU is Carter-Williams, Triche, Southerland, C.J. Fair, and Rakeem Christmas.
Those five are burying their charity shots to the tune of 78.2 percent so far this season. While Christmas probably will not maintain his 80 percent mark at the line the whole season, Boeheim can easily replace him with Cooney. This is a five-man unit where Fair is the weakest ballhandler, but he proved to be a valuable component when the Orange faced the Arkansas press.
The secret concern for Syracuse? Rebounding. To put it simply, the team has fattened up on the boards lately against weak competition. Their gaudy +11.6 rebounding margin is propped up by SU grabbing over 50 rebounds a game in their last three contests, including outrebounding Monmouth 63-38 on Saturday, and piling up 64 offensive boards in that time.
Last year’s team posted a +6.8 rebounding mark in their first eight games, but were outrebounded on the season, including a -4.0 rebounding mark against Big East opponents. A similar slide in rebounding coupled with the expected decrease in steals and blocked shots could lead to some hiccups in conference play.
In short, though, the team’s play in the first month of the season suggests that they are fairly comparable to last year’s team. That team finished 34-3 with a regular season Big East title and an Elite Eight berth. Simply put, look for another strong season and deep NCAA Tournament run.Jim Stechschulte (Follow on Twitter @dsafetyguy)