I’m tired of every analyst saying what Syracuse has to do or what they have to fix to win. This team is as unique as any in recent memory and while they do have a couple big issues with a mediocre half-court offense and sub-par rebounding, it’s clear by their 31-1 record that these don’t necessarily have to be fixed for the Orange to win.
The pervading opinion of those that follow college basketball but don’t necessarily follow Syracuse is that this team is deep. Everyone bought into that in the early going, but like every year, once Big East play started Coach Boeheim buckled down and really only relied on six players. You could look at the stats and see Syracuse has one of the best benches in the nation, but the majority of that was Dion Waiters, who usually winds up playing more minutes than some of the starters.
There were times when it looked like Boeheim had lost faith in Michael Carter-Williams and James Southerland. And of course, Rakeem Christmas was a starter in name only and would rarely last more than a couple minutes before being yanked. But the last few games Boeheim has been giving Southerland and MCW opportunities, and it looks like it paid off last night.
Syracuse’s bench actually outscored the starters, 30-28. Dion Waiters had a team-high 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting as he might be updating his resume for the NBA. He got to the rim at ease and had a nasty step-back jumper that left his defender nowhere near him. He’s had some rough games recently but no one can be surprised that he produced one of his best games in the bright lights of MSG.
It was the lift of the other bench players that was a bit more surprising and really bodes well for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Michael Carter-Williams played 8 minutes and tallied 4 assists, Rakeem Christmas also played 8 minutes and grabbed 5 rebounds and a couple of blocks, and James Southerland played a season-high 27 minutes while recording 10 points, 4 rebounds and 2 blocks.
The Orange has baffled analysts all season with their ability to win in a variety of ways, but UConn has also been baffling—for very different reasons. How in the world is this team not one of the top in the nation? There’s a reason they were ranked 4th in the AP preseason poll. The Huskies are as talented a team as any in the nation.
Shabazz Napier showed how dominant he can be against West Virginia when he went off for 26 points including 22 in the 2nd half and overtime. Jeremy Lamb is most likely a lottery pick and has the ability to absolutely dominate games. Andre Drummond is also a future lottery pick and one of the most physically gifted big men in college basketball (just take a look at that put-back dunk). Ryan Boatright shot 42 percent from 3-point range this season including 8-for-14 in the first 2 games against the Orange. Alex Oriakhi should be the rock of this team with his experience and size and should own the paint for the Huskies.
Despite all that talent the Huskies finish the season at 20-13 and will be somewhere around an 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament. I’d say they will be a dangerous team in the tournament but if they haven’t put it together so far this season why would they be able to do it a week from now?
Why is such a talented team struggling? There seems to be a complete lack of chemistry. During the season players have complained about teammates not putting forth a complete effort and being selfish. Yesterday it was a lot of poor decisions and stagnant offense. Jeremy Lamb played all 40 minutes last night and scored just 10 points and only 2 in the 2nd half. How does a guy averaging 18 points per game get just 2 in the second half? Maybe those 40 minutes wore on him because he was not demanding the ball and seemed complacent to hang around the perimeter and wait for the ball to come to him.
Andre Drummond is a tremendous player but he doesn’t have the offensive game to create his own shot. He scores off of guard penetration and put-backs but the lack of ball movement and penetration limited his efforts.
But it was Shabazz Napier’s play that really sunk the Huskies. After being so brilliant against the Mountaineers, Napier was awful against the Orange down the stretch. UConn scored just one field goal from 9:38 until 19 seconds remaining. Granted, it was Napier that scored both of those but in between he went 0-for-5 with a turnover and all five of those shots were very poor decisions.
The worst of it came in the closing minutes. With 2:08 remaining and UConn trailing 53-49, the Huskies acted with no sense of urgency. They passed it around the perimeter and didn’t penetrate the 3-point line until 15 seconds left on the shot clock. Then, down 55-49 with 1:06 remaining it was more of the same with the end result being a desperation Ryan Boatright 3-point try with 10 left on the shot clock. Finally, with 40 seconds remaining and Napier pushing the ball, he pulled it back to wait for the offense to set up despite trailing by 6 points. And that’s how a team with so much talent can so underachieve.
Despite UConn falling short of expectations, the Orange defeating them three times in one season is a tremendous feat. The two teams have met in 7 of the last 9 Big East tournaments but there’s a decent chance it will be their last meeting in Madison Square Garden with the Orange headed to the ACC most likely after next season and the possibility that UConn won’t be allowed to play in next year’s event because of failing to reach academic marks. If this was the final meeting, no matter how ugly the game was, it was a good way for the Orange to put an end to it.