Part of the fun in watching the early season games is figuring out what kind of team the Syracuse Orange will be during the upcoming season, and what the ceiling is for its success. After two extremely inconsistent winning efforts against inferior teams, I’m surprisingly optimistic about this squad’s chances to reach the Final Four, and repeat or exceed last year’s achievement.
My sentiment is not echoed by Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who so eloquently said recently, “We lost probably the best defensive guard we’ve ever had here from last year’s team (Michael Carter-Williams) and a guy that’s averaging 20 points in the NBA. And we’ve got another guard who started four years and was a great player (Brandon Triche)….And James Southerland, who’s on an NBA roster? And we’re going to be better? What do you guys watch? I would like to have people be realistic. I think I like that better.”
Well, coach, I think I am being realistic. Yes, our top of the zone defense is weaker – no question. Trevor Cooney and Tyler Ennis are not as long as MCW and Triche were. Still, each has six steals through the first two games so far. They will only improve with practice and minutes. And Michael Gbinije at 6-foot-7 can give the top of the zone the length it lacks, when needed.
The back of the zone is as strong as ever. With five guys that can be rotated in and out – each 6-foot-8 or taller, most with plenty of experience -Southerland’s loss on defense is basically negligible. Assuming the top improves, and catches up to the bottom of the 2-3, I think the defense will be fine, even if it’s not quite as good as last year’s version.
So if the defense isn’t as good, that must mean the offense will be better, right? Exactly.
Yes, MCW is playing phenomenally in the NBA and leading the surprising Sixers, but that’s somewhat surprising considering how he played last year for the Orange. How soon we forget that he shot under 40% last season, and turned the ball over 3.4 times per game, including seven games with 6 or more. Yes he averaged almost 12 points a game, but Tyler Ennis doesn’t have to do that. As a freshman, Ennis has already shown the poise and patience of a mature playmaker, and he seems to be resistant to turnovers. Even if he only averages 7 or 8 points a game, his lack of mistakes and swift passing will ensure the Orange always have a chance to close out games, or make a run to catch up.
And part of those runs will undoubtedly come riding the hot hand of Trevor Cooney, who has proven he will be the definition of a streak shooter. He will be able to make up for the loss of Southerland on most nights in the shooting department, and while he can’t make up for the leadership of Triche, C.J. Fair will more than handle that.
Fair’s ascension to an elite college basketball player cannot be understated. He is the definition of a go-to-guy both on the offensive and defensive end. He is capable of putting the Orange on his back and leading them when called upon. But, the main difference for this year’s team is increased offensive firepower. Last year the buck stopped with Fair, Triche, Southerland, and MCW. That was the entire offense, except for a few sparks from Jerami Grant.
This year Fair, Cooney, Grant and Ennis are all able of going out and getting you 15-20 points on an any given night, and there are 4 to 5 guys who can get you 10. Freshmen Tyler Roberson and B.J. Johnson, Duke transfer Gbinije, and matured big men Rakeem Christmas and DaJuan Coleman can all make plays and take advantage when the opportunity presents itself.
The freshmen and Gbinije especially, are each capable of making plays on their own, off the dribble, or spotting up. This is something last year’s team lacked on offense. Outside of the top four, no one else could score without being spoon fed by MCW, or off of an offensive rebound.
Last year if Southerland was out or went cold, no one else could shoot.
This year, if Cooney has nights where he repeats his performance against Fordham and most of last season, Fair, Johnson, and Gbinije are all capable of stepping up and knocking down some outside looks.
This is a huge difference and the reason why I think this year’s team can outscore their opponent on most nights, even if they can’t necessarily stop them on the defensive end.
In the end, whoever scores more points wins. So while it won’t pretty, and Boeheim is likely to pull out the remainder of his hair by the end of the season, I still think this Orange team will win and win often.
One last, crucial thing to remember: last year’s zone wasn’t that great either in the early going. It wasn’t until the tournament that it really locked in and stifled Indiana and Marquette. With this year’s offense able to carry the load until the zone reaches its full potential, there’s no reason to think a repeat run through March Madness is a pipe dream, even perhaps with a happier ending.Matt Goodman