The month of March is supposed to come in like a lion and go out like a lamb. For Jim Boeheim and the Syracuse Orange, March has arrived two months ahead of schedule.
January 2018 certainly started well for the Orange as it celebrated New Year’s Eve with a 68-56 victory over Virginia Tech to open ACC play. Syracuse led 32-19 at the half and never looked back. The Orange limited the Hokies to 18-of-52 shooting from the field while Matt Moyer and Oshae Brissett almost outrebounded the entire VaTech squad, 22-26. Since then, things haven’t gone according to plan. An underwhelming victory against hapless Pitt on Tuesday aside, Syracuse dropped its previous four contests; at Wake Forest, home versus Notre Dame, and two more on the road at Virginia and at Florida State. So how did Syracuse wind up in this predicament?
Syracuse suffered heavy losses from last year’s squad. Andrew White III, John Gillon, and Tyler Roberson were seniors. Tyler Lydon was a first-round pick in the NBA draft. And Taurean Thompson, who was slated to be part of a 1-2 scoring punch alongside Tyus Battle, transferred to Seton Hall just prior to the start of the fall semester. This year’s squad has struggled to score as evidenced by the fact that in three of its four recent losses Syracuse failed to crack 70 points including a mere 49-point effort against the Irish. Things didn’t get much better in the win against Pittsburgh as the Orange only generated 59 points.
Heading into last season, Gillon and Howard were both vying for the starting point guard spot. After some back and forth, Gillon won out early on in league play and admirably guided the team the rest of the season, including that miraculous buzzer-beater against Duke. This year, Howard has the only set of keys to the car. And he’s driving well as he’s second on the team in scoring, third in minutes played, and has become its best shooter from beyond the arc. Howard has helped carry the team, but, turnovers have been a problem for the junior. In the Orange’s four ACC losses, Howard has 15 assists compared to 21 giveaways. He averages 4.2 TPG for the season.
Failing Their Boards
Throughout its out-of-conference slate, Syracuse emerged as one of the top rebounding teams in the nation. That’s changed with the arrival of conference play. In the four ACC losses, Syracuse lost the rebounding battle three times. Wake, Notre Dame, and Florida State outrebounded SU by 31 boards. For a team that struggles to score, each possession is critical.
Swings and Misses
By now you’ve heard their names far more than you care to recall. Quade Green and Jordan Tucker. Before you roll your eyes and x-out of the page, hear me out. Green has played in 15 of Kentucky’s 18 games; having missed the last three. The freshman is averaging just less than 11 PPG in about 25 minutes of game action. While he might not have leap-frogged Howard for the starting point guard spot, he would’ve provided a solid scoring option and ball-handler off the bench.
Tucker recently transferred to Butler after a mere one semester at Duke, his dream school. His size, scoring ability, and deep shooting range might’ve earned him the starting nod alongside fellow frosh Brissett at the other forward spot. Even if he didn’t beat out Matt Moyer, Tucker, like Green, could’ve provided bench reinforcements.
To compensate for missing out on Green and Tucker, Boeheim turned to the grad transfer market again after having success with White and Gillon. This time, he mined Geno Thorpe from South Florida. Thorpe was supposed to bring ball handling with a scorer’s punch. But the senior opted to leave the program due to a supposed lack of satisfaction with his role. Thorpe’s decision made a thin Syracuse bench that much thinner and robbed the Orange of an offensive bench spark, a trait Boeheim’s teams have employed quite well.
Another player who Boeheim would’ve loved to see in orange is Maryland sophomore Kevin Huerter. The long-range bomber from New York torched Syracuse for 23 points on 7-of-9 from deep back in a December Dome loss. Sadly for Syracuse, NCAA scholarship sanctions prevented the Orange from offering. Huerter’s size and deft shooting touch would’ve gone a long way to jump-start a stagnant, at times, Syracuse offense.
Syracuse doesn’t take the court again until Boston College comes to the Carrier Dome on Wednesday. But these aren’t the typical push-over Eagles. Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson are one of the most formidable backcourt combos in the nation. And they are both lethal from three.
So while the real March is still six and a half weeks away, Syracuse had better figure out how to harness its inner lion. Or continue to be lambs to the slaughter.