The state of Syracuse basketball heading into ACC play

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BJ Johnson (left) may get squeezed out of the rotation

With thirteen games in the books, the Syracuse Orange have closed the non-conference portion of their schedule. The record shows they are 9-4, which puts them in the neighborhood of where they were expected to have been when the season got underway.

Seven weeks of action is more than enough time to show where the Orange stand right now and what we can expect the rest of the season.

1. The offense has developed into one that is going to be reliant on three players (Rakeem Christmas, Trevor Cooney, and Michael Gbinije) and anything they get beyond that will be a bonus.

Christmas has been a godsend this season, wildly outperforming any expectations SU fans could have reasonably held. The senior center, whose career high in scoring coming into the season was 15 points, has scored at least that many points in 11 of 13 contest thus far. Shooting over 63 percent from the field, Christmas is averaging over 17 points, almost nine rebounds, and over two blocks per game.

Cooney has not only adjusted to a greater role, he has embraced it. Cast as almost exclusively a three-point shooter last season (over 72 percent of his field goal attempts last season were threes), Cooney has become an aggressive all-purpose player for SU and his whole game has ramped up. In the last seven games, Cooney has posted 15.7 points per outing and made 20-of-45 triples and 22-of-23 at the stripe.

Gbinije has developed an aggressive streak, averaging over 12 points an outing in the same span as Cooney. He also shooting nearly 59 percent in that time, as well as over four rebounds and four assists per game. He’s also made nearly 50 percent of his threes in that time, forcing defenses to respect his perimeter game and open things up for both Christmas and Cooney.

These three are clearly the engine for the Orange and anything they get outside of them is a bonus. McCullough has capped a stretch of eight double-figure efforts to start the season with an average of five points per outing over the last five. The rest of the roster has eight double-figures scoring efforts combined. The increased schedule difficulty of ACC play will not help their contributions.

» Related: Syracuse ends non-conference slate with win over Cornell

2. Jim Boeheim is going to use a short rotation, so you may as well enjoy it.

Yes, you can pull out your ready-made excuses for late season losses and dust them off. They include “the starters are tired because Boeheim never uses his bench” and “if Boeheim had played them earlier in the season, they would be able to help the team out.” You will have plenty of chances to use them.

But, they are uncalled for. Simply put, Boeheim does not have the margin for error that he has had with some recent teams where he regularly played eight or nine guys if he wants to win games and make the NCAA Tournament.

In recent games, when the contest has been in doubt, Boeheim has stuck with a strict seven-man rotation. Aside from the starting five, the coach has only dipped into his bench for two players and only for finite reasons.

Since returning from an abdominal strain, Tyler Roberson has adopted a role as an energy player who hits the glass. With Boeheim’s previously stated concerns over rebounding with Gbinije (and his lack of bulk) playing small forward, Roberson will keep logging minutes provided he continues to play with energy and hit the glass. Roberson’s role also enables Boeheim to have free rein to yank Chris McCullough for errors, particularly defensive lapses or a lack of aggression on the glass.

Ron Patterson is the seventh man on the team and his role is similar to Roberson’s in that he is summoned when a freshman starter makes mistakes. As conference play has neared, Boeheim has shown a lot less tolerance for Kaleb Joseph’s on-the-job mistakes. Against Long Beach State, Joseph lasted less than 90 seconds of the game before getting a seat next to the coach on the bench. Of course, Patterson is spotty at times, as well, and he lasted just over two minutes before Joseph was shuttled back in the game. That suggests Boeheim is not really looking to Patterson to fill a substantial role, but rather, that he can plug him in and hopefully get a temporary upgrade over Joseph.

» Related: A New Year’s resolution list for Syracuse basketball

 

3. NCAA bid talk is premature.

Yes, Syracuse’s fanbase is spoiled. The primary question for the last few seasons when it comes to the NCAA Tournament has been “how high will they be seeded”. That is not the case this year, as the tone has shifted to “will they get in.” As such, portions of the fan base are already examining what opponents of the Orange are doing and how it carries over to SU’s tourney hopes.

#15 St. John’s losing to Seton Hall yesterday means nothing, at this point, to Syracuse’s tournament hopes. Same thing with Michigan beating Illinois and Iowa knocking off #20 Ohio State the day prior.

They are individual, isolated games. Yes, the Red Storm loss could end up hurting the Orange. Yes, the win over the Illini helps Michigan save some face after their losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan. And, yes, the Hawkeyes continuing to win helps SU (especially with Iowa already having a second “ranked team” scalp).

But, we do not know what will happen over the rest of the season.

Maybe the Red Storm loss puts them in a tailspin. Then again, maybe it wakes them up and they rip off ten straight wins. The greater point is no one knows, at this point, who is actually going to be good enough to be in the tournament and who will not (although there are probably 15-20 teams who would need significant injuries and bad luck to not get in at this point). Thus, worrying over “good wins” and “bad losses” is, aside from a few
obvious cases (and there are none of those on Syracuse’s resume thus far), a waste of time because it is unknown which games were good wins and which were bad losses.

Most teams will play about 20 games between now and Selection Sunday. How about we let them play about 14 of those before we start classifying games on resumes?

Or, even better yet, how about we just worry about the Orange and see if they can do enough between now and then to determine if they are going dancing or not. Chances are, the only team that holds Syracuse’s fate in their hands is Syracuse.

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Jim Stechschulte

About Jim Stechschulte

A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.
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