After Syracuse advanced to the Sweet 16 on Saturday, the media focused on the players who helped the Orange get there. But while Rakeem Christmas and James Southerland deserve praise for coming up big in the first two rounds of the tournament, it is the player who struggled the most in those games that will be the key for SU making it to the Final Four.
CJ Fair was the Orange’s most consistent player during the regular season. As Syracuse’s first man off the bench, he scored 9 points per game, reaching that total in 17 of 31 games, while finishing second on the team in rebounds with 5.5 per game.
But since he was inserted into the starting lineup in place of Christmas at the start of the Big East tournament, Fair has averaged just 2.5 points and 4.25 rebounds per game. The biggest problem has been Fair’s jump shot, as he is a combined 2-17 in the last four games.
As his shooting percentage has dipped, so has his playing time. Fair was second on the team in minutes played during the regular season, averaging over 27 per game. As a starter, however, he has played 15 minutes three times and 22 in Syracuse’s loss to Cincinnati.
Fair’s time on the court has been taken by Southerland, who, in the last four games, has averaged almost exactly the minutes Fair played during the regular season – 26.5 per game. Southerland is tied with Dion Waiters as SU’s leading scorer in the NCAA tournament, and now that he has regained the touch from the 3-point line that he showed earlier in the season, it is easy to think he could fill the void caused by Fair’s struggles.
But this assumption understates Fair’s role in the offense, particularly against zone defenses. SU has had far more trouble against zone than man-to-man this season. Wisconsin, which Syracuse will play on Thursday, is known for its tough man-to-man defense, but if the Orange can get by the Badgers, it is sure to see plenty of zone the rest of the tournament.
The Orange’s half-court offense struggles against the zone when it fails to get the ball into the middle. Many times this season, the Orange has run ball screen after ball screen against the top two defenders in a 2-3 zone but failed to move the ball inside the 3-point arc. After wasting a good portion of the shot clock passing the ball around the perimeter, Syracuse would typically hoist up a challenged 3-pointer.
When Fair is at his most effective, he prevents this stagnation in the offense. Even during his struggles, he has managed to frequently get the ball at the top of the key in the middle of the zone. This allows him to either slash his way to the basket for a layup or draw the top two defenders to him so he can kick the ball out to an open jump shooter on the wings.
This is not a position that Southerland, who prefers to catch and shoot on the outside, or Joseph, who prefers to operate on the wings, is well suited to fill. As outstanding as Rakeem Christmas has played in the last two games, Coach Boeheim is not going to give the ball to him in the post to facilitate the offense.
Fair is Syracuse’s only option for the role of inside facilitator, and the Orange will need him to regain his offensive prowess if it plans to make a return trip to New Orleans.
The good news is that the shots he has been missing are open shots – good looks. He is not making bad decisions in order to compensate for his loss of production.
By all accounts, it could be just a string of bad luck. Many of his 15 misses in the last four games have rolled tantalizingly across the rim before bouncing out. As tempting as it is to speculate, his struggles are likely not due to the fact that he is in the starting lineup, since on more than one occasion this season he has replaced Christmas after less than a minute of game action.
Boeheim has not lost faith in the sophomore. After the victory over Kansas State, he said, “He hasn’t improved too much lately, but he will start. I’ve got a lot of confidence in him. I know he’ll get going — soon I hope.”
For Orange fans, he can’t get going soon enough.