When Brandon Triche arrived on campus his freshman year, I saw a kid blessed with great size, incredible strength, and deceptive quickness. He had a pretty good looking jump shot, a solid handle, decent court awareness, and growing up locally, he already had an impressive understanding of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. My best friend went to Jamesville-Dewitt, Brandon’s alma mater, and told me that he’d spoken with a couple guys who played with him there and they said, “Two years and he’s gone (to the NBA). He’d be a one and done if he hadn’t hurt his knee.” I was more than just excited, I was thrilled. And to say that I had expectations for Brandon is an understatement.
Over the course of his first three seasons, I saw occasional flashes of the kind of player that had been hyped to me. He could do it all and yet, he never quite seemed to put it together, at least not with any consistency. I chalked it up to confidence, the one skill-set Brandon didn’t quite seem to have in his arsenal. Despite starting every game his first three seasons and displaying plenty of talent, there was always a better player waiting to check-in the game for him if and when he made a mistake—Scoop Jardine, Brandon’s freshman year and Dion Waiters during his sophomore and junior seasons. And the way Brandon played, it seemed like he was just waiting to get yanked for one of those guys, usually playing tentative so he wouldn’t make a mistake, occasionally out of control when he tried to match the aggressiveness his coaches kept asking from him, and very rarely in that sweet spot in between.
Coming into this season, I felt like it was finally Brandon’s time to step up, to fully realize his potential, and to become a dominating force for the Orange. There was no one scratching and clawing for his starting spot off the bench; he was going to play 35+ minutes a game, no matter what he did. I thought the knowledge that this team truly needed him and that Boeheim fully believed in him would be the key to him overcoming the struggles with confidence that seemed to dog him through his first three years. I watched him during his Midnight Madness introductions, dancing, animated, emotional, and something I’d never seen before, exuberant. Brandon Triche, “senior leader,” for a preseason top-10 squad had the look of a new man. But sadly, it was an illusion.
The Brandon we’ve seen over the course of this season has in many ways been the same Brandon we saw his first three. There’s been some good. He has consistently played excellent defense, anchoring the 2-3 zone for much of the season. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that Brandon might be the best positional defender I’ve seen at the top of the zone since Jason Hart, possibly ever. He doesn’t get as many steals as Andy Rautins or his current backcourt partner, Michael Carter-Williams, but that’s because he doesn’t gamble nearly as much, focusing on fundamentals, understanding exactly what his opponent is trying to do and where he needs to be. In addition to his defense, his offensive game has been occasionally transcendent, most memorably during the first half against Louisville, when he scored 18 points and looked like one of the best players in the country.
During that first half against Louisville, I felt like the lightbulb had finally gone on for Brandon, that he was finally realizing just how talented he was, but it was just another tease. Brandon has not looked like one of the best players in the country of late. Far from it actually. His struggles are largely on offense and mostly have to do with his jump shot. His three point percentage is a career low .285 on the season and he’s 2-16 (.125) over Syracuse’s past four games (three of which have been losses). In fact, he’s struggled with his shot in all of Syracuse’s Big East losses:
Triche’s Shooting In Big East Losses (three-pointers in parenthesis):
@Villanova: 7-18 (3-8)
@Pittsburgh: 4-14 (0-5)
@Connecticut: 3-15 (0-7)
Georgtown: 4-13 (1-7)
@Marquette: 4-10 (0-3)
Louisville: 2-11 (0-3)
Compare that to…
Triche’s Shooting in Big East Victories (three-pointers in parenthesis):
Rutgers: 8-11 (5-7)
@S. Florida: 8-13 (0-3)
Providence: 2-10 (0-4)
Villanova: 1-8 (1-4)
@Louisville: 9-13 (5-7)
Cincinnati: 6-13 (1-6)
Notre Dame: 2-9 (0-5)
St. John’s: 5-10 (2-6)
Seton Hall: 10-18 (4-7)
Providence: 5-11 (1-3)
Syracuse has been able to overcome three poor shooting performances by Brandon, but in each of those games C.J. Fair and at least one other player had excellent games, making up for Brandon’s shooting woes. The numbers suggest that as Brandon goes, so goes the Orange. And in lieu of his recent struggles, that’s incredibly concerning to Syracuse fans, especially as they endeavor to understand what is going on with him.
There’s no physical explanation for Brandon’s woeful numbers. While his shot has always been a little flat, he generally has good form and balance. So it appears to me, that his struggles are largely mental. Watching Brandon shoot is like watching myself talk to girls when I was in high school: I over-thought everything and as a result, I never scored. When you watch Brandon, it’s pretty clear he’s thinking about his shot and his mechanics, which is just about the worst thing a shooter can do. A shot front-rims and the next hits the backboard, because he’s adjusting his stroke in-game in response to his previous misses, rather than relying on muscle memory. And the results speak for themselves.
With his confidence shaken, more and more teams are zoning us, willing to give Brandon (or MCW) the open outside shot in order to prevent them from penetrating into the lane where they’re most dangerous. It’s become a catch-22 situation, where in order to avoid having to take the shots he struggles with, he’s being forced to make the shots he struggles with. Right now he’s not, but if he did, opposing defenses would be forced to extend their zone or play us man to man, giving Brandon the space he needs to penetrate.
The good news for Brandon (and for Syracuse fans), is the season is not over. Brandon’s potential legacy, “talented player/tremendous headcase,” is not written in stone. He still has the Big East Tournament and the Big Dance. There’s still time for him to regain his confidence, find his shot, and help lead this team to glory. In 2006, Gerry McNamerra turned a wildly disappointing season into one of Syracuse’s most memorable, with his Garden heroics. It cemented his status as a Syracuse legend. Two years ago, Kemba Walker had a seven game mid-season stretch where he failed to shoot better than 37% from the field, but he righted the ship, peaking late and improbably leading UCONN to a Big East and an NCAA Championship. Brandon has all the physical gifts and the game to turn things around and instantly turn Syracuse into a title contender. He just can’t over-think things.