Things to watch for as Syracuse approaches postseason play

When Syracuse’s first Atlantic Coast Conference schedule was released, one of the most challenging aspects was that the Orange had to play five of its last six games on the road. That included back-to-back tilts at Duke and Maryland in a 48-hour span. A daunting task for sure. What’s made Syracuse’s close to the season even more glaring is that its fall from grace has been even more magnified by the way it started the year; a 25-0 start and the No. 1 ranking.

Boeheim

Syracuse will play in its first ACC tournament this weekend

The Orange limped across the regular season finish line with a record of 27-4 ( 14-4 ACC). That’s good second place in the league, two games behind Virginia, and the number two seed in the upcoming ACC Tournament. Syracuse was flying high six weeks ago, fresh off its classic overtime win versus Duke and was the talk of college basketball. A second consecutive Final Four and a shot at the school’s second national championship seemed to be a foregone conclusion. The Orange is the talk of college basketball yet again but for all the wrong reasons. Let’s take a look at some questions to ponder as both the ACC and NCAA Tournaments loom.

» Related: Syracuse snaps two-game losing streak with win over FSU

Back to form

For Syracuse to rediscover its winning ways might just hinge on the most discussed back in the 315 area code. After struggling through the loss to Duke with back pain, Jerami Grant’s play has been limited. Grant logged only 13 minutes in the two games against Maryland and Virginia while missing the Georgia Tech game. He returned against Florida State this past Sunday. His absence has showed in the rebounding department. The sophomore leads Syracuse with 6.8 RPG. Syracuse lost the battle of the backboards in its last four games prior to visiting Tallahassee. The Orange dominated the glass, 43-24, against FSU as Grant led the way with eight rebounds in 35 minutes of action.

Easy as one two…three?

Fans shouldn’t be surprised if post offices and telephone poles throughout the Syracuse area display “Missing” posters for Trevor Cooney’s three-point shot. Cooney’s ability to knockdown triples is a critical part of Syracuse’s offense. He started the season off by knocking down seven threes in the opener against Cornell and followed that up with connecting on five threes in six more games in the Orange’s out of conference portion of the schedule. Since the start of ACC play, Cooney has been pedestrian from beyond the arc. The sophomore sizzled against Notre Dame with a 9-of-12 performance but hasn’t made more than three threes in any other league game. Cooney is 42-of-164 in ACC games, 25 percent. Since the Boston College loss, Cooney has been mired in a 9-of-45 (20 percent) slump. Teams know Cooney is Syracuse’s main three-point threat. That makes him a focal point of defenses.

Sending a message

There’s no need to rehash Jim Boeheim’s epic court storming at Duke. While he was clearly enraged over what he believed to clearly be an outrageous call, was there an ulterior motive to his madness? Syracuse ranks eight in the conference with 21.1 free throws attempted per game. Virginia, Duke and North Carolina all rank ahead of the Orange. Those four teams just happen to be the top four seeds in the ACC Tournament. The Orange, along with Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, is one of three newbies in unchartered waters this year. If Boeheim’s eruption at Cameron helps earn the Syracuse a few extra whistles against the league heavies in the conference tournament, then the negative publicity that followed will be worth it.

» Related: ACC has had no problems navigating SU’s zone

Syracuse-Duke Round 3

The Orange and the Blue Devils waged two epic battles this season with each prevailing on its home court. Syracuse needed overtime to turn the trick while the game in Durham wasn’t decided until Jim Boeheim forgot that his eligibility for the Orange has long since expired and he entered the game illegally in an effort to take the tying shot. I kid. These two squads now find each other on the same side of the bracket, Syracuse the two seed and Duke the three seed, with a potential clash in the semifinals looming.

NCAA Tournament seeding

Thanks to its 25-0 start, Syracuse was being projected as the No. 1 seed in the East. That meant playing its first two games in Buffalo and potentially the regional semifinals and finals in Madison Square Garden, a very familiar and fan-friendly venue to the Orange. As the Orange has slid, fortunes of other teams such as Florida, Arizona and undefeated Wichita State continues to rise. So is a No. 1 seed now out of reach for Syracuse? The final No. 1 seed will probably be determined by the conference tournaments with teams such as Villanova, Michigan and Kansas all potential candidates. Virginia and Duke, should either win the ACC Tournament, can also make an argument for a top seed. For Syracuse to put itself back into the discussion for a No. 1 seed, it must prevail in the ACC while defeating a couple more quality wins in rematches with the Cavaliers, Blue Devils or Tar Heels.

Welcome to March.

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About Steve Auger

Steve Auger is a freelance writer whose work has covered a variety of topics including sports, pets, parenting, healthy living, local government and human interest stories. His work has been published on Care.com, Tom’s of Maine, Purina’s Petcentric.com and the Westford Patch. Steve’s been a diehard Syracuse sports fan for over 25 years. To this day, the words “Smart takes the shot” still make him cringe. Follow him on Twitter @Corner_Cube.
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