Syracuse has battled through a lot of adversity this year. I’m not even talking about the various scandals. I’m talking about on the court.
Certain players have gone through dismal stretches. They’ve been out-rebounded, out-hustled, shoot poorly from the free throw line, struggled offensively, but they have always found a way to win nearly every time. Against Cincinnati they certainly had their chances but some glaring faults they’ve had all season combined with uncharacteristic play was just too much to overcome.
One of the main reasons the Orange have been one of the top teams in the nation has been turnover margin. They generate a lot of blocks and steals and take care of the ball. Last night they lost that battle for just the second time all season (it should be noted it was the second time in the last three games) turning the ball over 15 times while Cincinnati turned it over 14. That’s a huge difference for a team that has an average turnover margin of about plus-6.
Another strength of this team has been the ability to defend the 3-point shot. No player all season had hit more than five 3-pointers against the Orange but Sean Kilpatrick went 6-for-9 last night to account for all 18 of his points. The consensus is Cincinnati was “on fire” from 3-point range early, knocking down 8 of their first 11 attempts and then “cooled off” making just 2 of their last 11. But this is an oversimplification of what really happened. The reason they were “on fire” is because they were getting great looks because of Syracuse’s poor defense. The zone failed to rotate properly, didn’t get back on defense quick enough and Cincinnati did a decent job moving the ball to create open looks. By my count though, Cincinnati had 11 great looks on those threes and knocked down 7 of them. That means they were just 3-of-11 on their other attempts. That’s not exactly “on fire” now is it?
Rebounding has been one of their biggest weaknesses all season and despite the stats, it was still an issue last night. The Orange out-rebounded the Bearcats 32 to 31 but the disparity should have been much greater since Cincinnati often plays a four-guard lineup with Yancy Gates as the fifth. It was also when the rebounds came that were so soul-crushing for Syracuse. In the second half, when Cincy began missing its 3-pointers, it got the ball back on nearly every possession. Of the 7 missed 3-pointers in the second half, the Bearcats got the offensive rebound on 5 of those and scored on the first 4. That’s simply devastating for a team trying to come back. The main culprit of the awful rebounding was Kris Joseph who did not have a single rebound in 33 minutes of play.
That wasn’t the only issue for Joseph. The leading scorer took just 6 shot attempts and all of them were 3-pointers. For a player so gifted at driving to the hoop, how he had no shot attempts around the rim is baffling. Joining Joseph in the bad game department was fellow starting senior Scoop Jardine. Scoop turned it over 5 times and had just 2 assists while taking just 3 shot attempts. He couldn’t penetrate the Cincinnati zone and when he did he made ill-advised passes. That’s right, Cincinnati played a 2-3 zone and the Orange couldn’t figure it out. It was interesting to watch Syracuse attempt to set screens at the top of the key when that clearly has little effect against the zone.
Lastly, what had been a strong point, but has slipped recently, is free throw shooting. The Orange hit just 9-of-16 and none more soul-crushing than Brandon Triche’s two misses that would’ve cut the lead to 3 with 4 minutes remaining. When Fab Melo misses it’s excusable but when Triche, an 83 percent free throw shooter misses two in a row that hurts.
The good thing for Syracuse is that this game doesn’t matter. They have a No. 1 seed locked up and will most likely still be in the East region for the NCAA Tournament. Maybe this game will help focus the team. Maybe a loss is exactly what they needed to focus back in and realize that they aren’t untouchable. They can’t always come back if they fall behind early. Or maybe this is a sign of things to come. Or maybe this game will have absolutely no bearing on their tournament results no matter how much we want to read into it.