Syracuse heads home wondering what if

It’s tough to reflect on this season just hours after coming up short of a trip to the Final Four. This team set school record and conference record for wins. They lost just 3 games all season but none of that matters much right now since that third loss ended their season short of achieving their goal of a national title. Syracuse pulled out so many tight games but couldn’t do it on this final night as Ohio State now celebrates a trip to New Orleans while Syracuse heads home wondering what if.

Much has been made about the officiating in this game. The kindest thing I can say is that it was very inconsistent. Sometimes they called chippy fouls and other times they ignored blatant hacks. But Ohio State suffered the most significant bad call when Jared Sullinger picked up his second foul that caused him to sit for the final 13:42 of the first half (although, a charge called on Brandon Triche that negated a potential 3-point play and resulted in a Jim Boeheim technical was a close second). Dion Waiters drove and made a layup with no contact from Sullinger but the whistle blew anyway.

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Unfortunately, Syracuse could not capitalize on Sullinger’s absence. The score was 13-11 after Waiters made the free throw and by halftime the game was knotted at 29-29. Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams picked up the slack for the big man and the Orange missed a huge opportunity. They settled for far too many jumpers instead of attacking the paint and forcing the officials to make calls.

While Sullinger returned in the 2nd half, he basically became a designated offender with no intention to play defense whatsoever. There were multiple times where Syracuse drove through the lane and Sullinger took a step back in fear of picking up his 3rd foul. This lasted far longer than it should have as he continued to back off despite not picking up his 3rd foul until under a minute remaining. But despite his hesitancy, Syracuse could not make the Buckeyes pay. In the second half, the Orange missed 8 shots within 5 feet of the bucket. They were fouled on two of those but they should’ve had the chance at a 3-point play and that still leaves 6 other missed opportunities.

Ohio State definitely capitalized on its size advantage. The points in the paint actually favored Syracuse, 28-20, but that doesn’t factor in the massive free throw disparity. Ohio State went 31 for 42 whereas Syracuse was 20 for 25. Baye Keita did the best he could to keep Sullinger out of the paint but he made a few tough shots while scoring 15 of his 19 points in the second half, including 9 from the line.

The Buckeyes won by dictating the pace with a solid game plan. They capitalized on their huge size advantage in the post (and actually should’ve exploited this even more. Sullinger didn’t work very hard to get the ball), played solid defense (although, by listening to the announcers you’d think Aaron Craft was the second coming of Gary Payton) but most importantly they protected the ball and limited Syracuse to just 4 fast break points (if that – NCAA has it listed at 0 but I counted one run-out in each half). Without getting those transition buckets and getting out-rebounded 18-8 in the second half, Syracuse had to win the turnover battle. And they were winning it until they coughed it up 5 times over the final 5 minutes including Kris Joseph dribbling it out of bounds and Dion Waiters doing the same.

What a disappointing finish for Kris Joseph. He was supposed to be the man this season. This was going to be his team and he did end up leading the team at 13.5 points per game. But he seemed to shrink when it mattered most.

There were three times when he took over and led Syracuse to victories – in the second game without Fab Melo (the first time he was out) he went 8 for 11 in a close win against Cincinnati; in an OT win against Georgetown he was the only one that could score as he knocked down 6 three-pointers; and at UConn he scored 21 in a 2-point victory.  But in his last 6 games he averaged under 10 points, over 2 turnovers while shooting 30 percent from the field. He made tremendous strides from his freshman to his junior year, but this season he seemed to take a step back. Some of that had to do with the talent around him but he too often disappeared from games. He has a unique combination of strength and speed and when in attack mode he was tough to stop. But at times it seemed he stopped himself – either through inexplicable turnovers or simply deferring to his teammates.

It’s actually amazing Syracuse stayed in this game as long as it did. No one played well. Rakeem Christmas was the only one who shot over 50 percent and he played just 16 minutes due to foul trouble. The Orange didn’t win the turnover battle, had few to no fast break points, got in the worst foul trouble they have had all season, and were out-rebounded (no surprise there). And despite all of that, they were within 3 points with under a minute remaining. All season they won games despite not playing their best. Finally it caught up to them. Finally enough went wrong and they ran into a talented enough team to make them pay for their mistakes.