Syracuse has sprinted to the best start in school history, obliterated every opponent in its path and maintained a six-week death grip on the top ranking in the nation.
So naturally, now’s the time to ask: should we be panicking about the half-court offense?
Syracuse has been a smothering defensive team all season, and they’re lethally efficient in transition. The backbreaking runs that have become their trademark are keyed by their aggressive perimeter defense, especially Dion Waiters and Scoop Jardine, who can go for steals knowing they have athletic shot blockers walling off the paint behind them.
But limit your turnovers and slow the game down, as Pittsburgh managed to do in the second half of Syracuse’s grinding 71-63 victory last Monday, and you neutralize the Orange’s most dangerous weapon. And you’re left with a good-but-not-great half-court team that is often frustratingly stagnant.
For their part, the players are unconcerned with the half-court offense.
“I think we just missed shots,” said Brandon Triche after the Pittsburgh game. “I know Kris [Joseph] got a couple open ones that he wished he could have made, I got a few open ones that I probably should have made. We got a little stagnant with them playing zone throughout the whole game, but we adjusted and we made plays when we needed to.”
Triche’s comments are illuminating, though. The Orange is vulnerable to the shots not falling because in the half court it’s mostly a jump-shooting team.
To be fair, Syracuse has a number of very good midrange players, notably Joseph. But a solid midrange game is a necessity given the team’s lack of the kind of low post player it’s enjoyed in recent years.
Fab Melo’s good for at least three or four ferocious dunks per game, and he’s very good at diving down the lane and finishing at the rim. But while he’s shown flashes at times, he’s not a post threat. All 10 of his points against the Panthers came on dunks, layups, and a pair of clutch free throws.
Working on the block Melo was 0-for-3, lasering a pair of jump-hooks off the iron and front-rimming a short turnaround jumper. To be fair, he was hampered in his post moves by the extreme level of physicality the referees were allowing, but some credit is due to Pittsburgh for establishing that kind of game early.
That Melo lacks a refined post game isn’t a knock on him given what a game-changer he is defensively, not to mention his relative inexperience. But at the same time, it speaks to Syracuse’s lone glaring weakness.
Watch a few possessions in the half court and the problems become readily apparent. Overdribbling on the perimeter. Too much one-on-one play. Lots of contested jumpers. Lack of useful ball movement. Stagnation.
Syracuse is talented enough that often, it works. But it doesn’t work as much as you want it to.
In a way, the team’s half-court woes are a testament to just how smart a coach Jim Boeheim is. He’s designed a game plan to maximize his depth and personnel and mask the one real limitation of his squad, and it’s worked flawlessly thus far.
But I admit, I’m terrified that a night in March will come when some scrappy upstart team like Wofford, or something equally fictitious-sounding, is bombing NBA-range threes and protecting the ball while Scoop and Joseph brick midrange jumpers at the other end, Fab Melo sits on the bench with 4 fouls in two minutes of play, and we all yell at Dion for dribbling aimlessly around the perimeter for 15 seconds.
That night might come. It’s always a possibility, no matter how good this team is. And if it does happen, I’d bet we’ll be talking afterward about how the half-court offense failed.
The bottom line, though, is this: right now, Syracuse is the best college basketball team in the nation, in the most competitive year for college hoops in recent memory thanks to the NBA lockout keeping a number of stars in school for an extra year. This team has a chance to be historically great.
There are a handful of teams with a realistic shot at a national title, and the Orange is one of them. That’s about as much as any fan can ask for.
And here’s something else. There are now only two remaining undefeated teams in the country, and with apologies to Murray State and its 234th-ranked strength of schedule, only one of them is elite.
UNC, Kentucky, Ohio State—every other contender has already blinked. Syracuse hasn’t.
In March, when it really matters, I don’t think the Orange is going to, either.