Syracuse basketball: The search for optimism

pitt

There have still been some positives about Syracuse basketball lately

If the season ended today, the Syracuse men’s basketball team would finish with its lowest ranking in Ken Pomeroy’s rating system since he launched it in 2002. On top of this futility, Orange’s self-imposed post-season ban leaves little reason for optimism.

But—say what you will about this year’s Orange—they always seem to make it interesting. With the exceptions of games against California and Clemson, SU has had a chance to win in the final minutes of each of its losses.

Saturday’s loss to Pittsburgh was no exception. The Orange had control of the game for 36 minutes before relinquishing the lead for good. These close losses are deflating, but they also give reason to hope—not just for next season—but also for this year’s squad to pull off some upsets on the final stretch of its brutally back-loaded schedule.

Take Michael Gbinije. After shooting 3-6 from behind the arc to go with his team-leading 23 points, he’s now shooting 48 percent on 3s in ACC play. Amazingly, that’s only 1 percent worse than his terrible foul shooting, but put that statistic aside for a minute.

The most encouraging aspect of Gbinije’s performance against Pitt was his aggressiveness in driving to the basket. If he can continue to do so, he will draw defenders and help to free Trevor Cooney on the perimeter.

» Related: Syracuse legend Pearl Washington weighs in on ban

Ron Patterson, on the other hand, gave reason for optimism by holding onto the ball. After his previous 0-2 performance caused his 3-point percentage to drop to a lowly 16.7 percent, Patterson swore off long-distance shooting. He managed to hold true to his word. He only finished with two points, but he didn’t turn the ball over or take any bad shots.

The combination of Patterson and Gbinije has also given hope to SU’s defense. One of the reasons for SU’s struggles this season is that it has forced turnovers at a lower rate than any season since 2009. Patterson and Gbinije both force steals on 2.9 percent of possessions (compared with 2.1 percent for Kaleb Joseph), and have been on a disruptive tear recently, combining for 10 steals in the last two games.

Even Joseph, who has struggled relative to expectations more than anyone, has managed to show recent signs of improvement. Against Pittsburgh, he attacked the basket and drew fouls, finishing with 9 points and 4-4 from the stripe.

But Joseph did commit 3 turnovers without registering an assist. This highlights the aspect of point-guard play that has been the Achilles heel of the Orange all season. Joseph has averaged 5 assists and 2.4 turnovers in wins this season, while 3.4 assists and 3 turnovers in losses. In ACC play, the assist-turnover ratios are starker – 4.3:1 in wins and 2:2.8 in losses.

Is this inconsistency the reason that SU has been so bad this season? That’s not the entire story. Comparing the statistics of this year’s squad to last year’s, the teams are much closer than you would expect.

This season, SU has defended the 3-point arc 3.5 percent better than last year. On offense, Syracuse has shot the same effective field goal percentage.

The differences are slight. The team has turned the ball over 3 percent more often. They have also been slightly worse on the offensive boards and haven’t gotten to the free throw line has often. The win-loss results may appear starkly dissimilar, but the reason is the sum of many small differences.

It’s because of this that there is hope for this year’s team. There are many small things to fix, but each has shown signs of improvement. If a few of these negatives manage to flip positive in the final eight games of the season, the Orange will have built a strong foundation to build on in 2015-2016.

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Jeff Irvine

About Jeff Irvine

Jeff has covered Massachusetts Minutemen basketball for The Maroon and White and The Daily Hampshire Gazette. He has also written for The Daily Orange. Jeff is an Amherst, Massachusetts native, and graduated from Syracuse University in 2006. Follow him on Twitter @jeffreyirvine.
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