Sticky situation, this ineligibility stuff. Nothing Syracuse basketball has not faced before.
With the announcement this past weekend that Syracuse sixth man James Southerland was suspended indefinitely for an ineligibility matter, the Orange took the floor shortly after and disposed of the visiting Villanova Wildcats.
But, as we saw in the 2011-12 season with Fab Melo, these things can be complicated. Melo was out for three games in the middle of the season, came back, and everybody thought it was case closed. Oh contraire. On the brink of the NCAA Tournament, Melo was declared ineligible for March Madness, severely dampening once strong championship hopes.
If Southerland is out an extended stretch of games, the Orange lose their top bench option (13.6 PPG) and their top marksman from beyond the arc (33 3-pointers made in 16 games). To compensate, Syracuse will have to get help from a couple different sources.
Brandon Triche. You know that season(s)-long cry from the Syracuse faithful for Triche to step up and lead the way for this team? Well, the cry just became a little more deafening. Already Syracuse’s leading scorer at 14.1 PPG, Triche will have to take his scoring up a tick to replace Southerland’s production. Triche’s slow ascent to being more assertive is going to have to kick into high gear. Saddled by foul trouble Saturday against Villanova, Triche managed just 10 points in the win. But, as the only other senior who plays regularly, Triche will have to be the focal point of the Syracuse offense without Southerland.
Jerami Grant. Mr. Grant, please step through the door of opportunity. At 6’8″, 200 lbs, Grant is the closest biological replacement for Southerland in terms of size and build. And all Grant did when called upon Saturday was log a career-high 29 minutes, score a career-best 13 points and grab five rebounds. He played a total of just 10 minutes in his two previous games, as Boeheim cited he will choose to win games over playing his freshman every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Production like Grant’s on Saturday is hard to ignore, though, and may make his cameos in Big East play a bit more frequent and long-lasting.
Trevor Cooney. Those back-to-back 3-pointers for Cooney in the second half against Villanova were pretty huge, weren’t they? For a guy who was touted as having dead-aim accuracy from 3-point range, Cooney has shot just 28 percent from beyond the arc is his first season on the court for Syracuse. But, his two 3-pointers against the Wildcats essentially were early daggers for the Orange, putting the game out of reach.
The great thing about was, during the broadcast Syracuse’s own Anish Shroff was describing how Gerry McNamara was saying that, for Cooney to get more comfortable with his shot, he needed to be more involved in the other facets of the game to jumpstart his shooting. And, sure enough, the play that started his pair of 3-pointers was a steal on the other end of the floor by Cooney.
Was that Cooney’s “I have arrived” moment? Everyone has waited for his outside shooting to make a difference and it has been too erratic to do so to this point. But, without Southerland, there is no doubt Cooney is the best remaining 3-point shooter on the squad.
Senior leadership. A long, athletic and versatile player. Outside shooting. All are traits that James Southerland brings to the table.
While he remains out indefinitely, Syracuse cannot replace those skills with just one person. Triche, Grant and Cooney will have to share the burden of filling in the gaps left by Southerland’s absence.
Villanova was a tough challenge on Saturday. But, Louisville is lurking around the corner. THAT will be a true test of how much Syracuse misses Southerland and how well they can get by without him.