Early Saturday morning, I was driving up to Bear Lake with my wife and a friend to go skiing, when I received a text from the most die-hard Syracuse basketball fan I know, that simply read, “Why does this always happen?” I texted him back to find out what was going on, and while I awaited his reply, my mind churned out hypotheticals, each one more terrifying than the last. Fortunately, there was no scandal on the level of Bernie Fine, but it certainly wasn’t insignificant either. The “this” referred to James Southerland’s indefinite ineligibility from the team.
In the wake of this news, many Syracuse fans divided into two camps: the irrationally negative and the irrationally
positive. The former, many of whom had suddenly abandoned their (misguided) Final Four expectations, complained that our already thin rotation couldn’t absorb this loss. The latter, pointed out James’ recent long-distance shooting woes and discussed how this might actually be a blessing in disguise—a way to make sure that Jeremai Grant, Trevor Cooney, Dejuan Coleman, and Rakeem Christmas developed into solid contributors, sooner rather than later. In my old age, I try to take a more rational approach to the ups and downs of basketball season. Yes, this is a big blow to the Orange and hurts their ceiling, but shouldn’t stop them from being a top-15 squad, a contender in the Big East, and a team that should still be able to make the Sweet 16 come March.
The pessimists mutter F-bombs and talk as if the season is already over. The optimists point to the solid play of Grant in limited minutes earlier this season, as well as his strong game against Villanova, and suggest that he should be able to fill-in quite nicely for Southerland. They say Grant’s defense and rebounding is on par with James’, and while he may not be quite the three-point threat, he’s better in and around the rim. As a rationalist, I see problems, not insurmountable problems, but problems without easy solutions.
Southerland’s presence on the court changes the way opposing teams defend Syracuse. Teams have to game-plan around his three-point shooting, which generally means face-guarding him on the perimeter. In his absence, Villanova packed defenders inside the arc and dared Syracuse to take jump shots. Despite a number of open looks, Syracuse went 4-14 from three, which sounds terrible, but was about half a three-point shot less than our season average. So unless the wildly inconsistent Triche and/or Cooney can start knocking down outside shots with more regularity, Syracuse can expect more opponents to try and turn us into a jump-shooting team, whether they employ a zone or pack guys into the paint like ‘Nova did.
This defensive strategy is problematic for the Orange for two reasons. The first is pretty obvious: We’re a poor shooting team. With James, Syracuse is shooting 31.9% from deep, which means we’re 238th in the country out of 347 teams. Take away James’ contributions and we drop to 29.8%, which would put us at 300th nationally. There’s an old saying, “live by the three, die by the three.” If we’re forced to try to live by it, we’re gonna die.
The second reason is a little less obvious. With James gone, Michael Carter-Williams becomes a far less efficient floor general. Not only was James his favorite target, benefitting from more MCW assists than any other player on the team, but his abilities beyond the arc, opened up things inside of it for Michael and the other recipients of Michael’s passes. When the lane is clogged, something that happens much more often when Syracuse plays a frontline featuring Christmas and Coleman or Grant and any of the bigs, MCW’s ability to distribute the ball in traffic is greatly diminished, which forces him to take more shots, something he’s been largely unable to do efficiently. Against Villanova, MCW only got things going once Fair knocked down a few outside shots and opened things up on the inside for Grant and Coleman. Asking CJ to fill the outside shooting void that James’ absence creates is probably a bit too much to ask of him on a consistent basis.
So making up for Southerland’s absence isn’t nearly as simple as asking Grant and Christmas and Coleman to play more (quality) minutes. The hole created by his ineligibility means that the nature of our offensive sets changes dramatically. I think that Grant can hold his own on defense and even though he gets out-muscled at times, he’s solid on the glass. And I love his willingness and desire to try to dunk the basketball when he’s in the game, something I wish our other bigs did more of. But he’s a very different player than James is, and that means Syracuse will be a very different team when he’s on the floor.
Now some of these concerns can be alleviated if Fair continues his sizzling play, the freshmen continue to improve and contribute, and other guys on this roster punish opposing teams who leave them open outside the arc. The optimist in me thinks that this team, given time, will learn how to adjust. The pessimist thinks that while our defense will keep us in most games, we have a very frustrating stretch of Syracuse basketball ahead of us. The rationalist says that we’re still very much a top-15 team and my Sweet 16 expectations for them are still largely in tact, although I think our inexperience and lack of depth probably prevents us from making a sustained run in March… that is unless I get another text before then that simply says, “James is back!”