Syracuse basketball: Seven burning questions answered

CJ Fair during a stoppage of play

Remember the preseason? A time of uncertainty, when Syracuse fans didn’t quite know what they had in their basketball team. A time of hope, when expressions like “making the leap” and words like “potential” were tossed around like loose meat tacos in an ugly sorority hazing incident. A time when I wrote about the 7 burning questions facing the Syracuse basketball team, the answers to which would ultimately determine just how good this team would be. Now, with the regular season wrapped up, I decided to revisit those questions and answer them one by one.

1. Can Brandon Triche finally realize his potential?

In a word, “no.” There was a reason why this was my number one question heading into the season and Brandon’s play to date has been the number one reason why Syracuse hasn’t been able to elevate their play from good to great. A tiny part of me is still holding out hope that he gets his game together during the Big East Tournament, in time for the Big Dance, but it’s the same part of me that believes Kate Upton would be super turned on if she heard me explain the intricacies of Syracuse’s patented 2-3 zone.

2. Can Michael Carter-Williams run the offense?

In a couple of words, “yes, but it won’t matter if no one makes shots.” Look, Syracuse has a lot of problems right now, but MCW isn’t one of them. His game has some holes (poor shooting, his handle needs work, he leaves his feet too much when he penetrates with the ball, and he’s good for a couple soul-crushing turnovers a game), but other than Trey Burke, there’s not a single point guard in the country that would be an obvious upgrade over MCW on this team. For all the criticism he gets, MCW routinely gets his teammates open shots; it’s not his fault none of them can seem to make them of late.

» Related: Read Nate Federman’s original “Seven burning questions”

CJ Fair still isn’t quite a ‘go-to’ guy

3. Can C.J. Fair go from glue-guy to go-to-guy?

Sort of. He’s been SU’s most consistent contributor in Big East play, but with his skill-set, he’s not really capable of taking over a game late as he still needs to improve his ability to create his own shot.

4. Can James Southerland be a consistent contributor?

Sort of, but not really. James has certainly elevated his game and has had a few incredible games, but our best shooter remains crazily inconsistent. You never quite know if he’s going to shoot 9-13 from three (like he did against Arkansas) or 1-10 (like he did against DePaul).

5. Can Trevor Cooney play enough defense to stay on the court?

I’m going to repost what I wrote originally, verbatim, because it’s downright comical at this point:

When Gerry McNamerra and Mike Hopkins both tell you that a guy has the purest shooting stroke they’ve ever seen, I’m reasonably confident he can shoot the rock. And I think everyone agrees that Cooney can and will shoot it. He’s a three point specialist, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Andy Rautins graduated. But Rautins was also one of the smartest defenders in the history of Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone. I have no idea if Cooney can play a lick of defense. He’s 6′ 4” and from the video I’ve seen, deceptively quick (at least on offense), but who knows how he’ll be at the top of the zone. He’s playing behind two guys (Triche and MCW) who are excellent defenders, so the difference between Cooney getting 15 minutes a game and 25, will be whether or not he can hold his own on the defensive end.

Well guess what? Trevor’s defense has actually gotten better as the season has progressed, and even though he still struggles with high-ball screens, occasionally forgets to close on shooters, and isn’t nearly as good of a defender as MCW or Triche, his defense has actually been decent enough to warrant him getting some more playing time… if he wasn’t so completely worthless on offense.

» Related: What is the state of Syracuse basketball?

6. How will Rakeem Christmas and Dejuan Coleman be utilized best?

Rak showed very quickly that he wasn’t capable of playing the wing has been utilized best playing center. Dejuan has been utilized best sitting on the bench. I long for that long-ago time when I thought Rak might be able to play the 4 and Coleman might be able to play enough defense to hold down the center of the zone. Coleman’s liabilities on defense have made him largely unplayable, even at times when Syracuse has been absolutely desperate for some (any) low-post scoring and defensive rebounding, skills which Rak hasn’t exactly excelled at.

7. Can Jerami Grant and Baye Keita contribute enough to warrant consistent minutes?

Sort of. Keita is a consistently solid defender with consistently bad hands and a consistently absent offensive game. You know what you get with him and that’s 15-25 minutes of solid defense, while having to play essentially 4 on 5 on offense. I don’t know what has happened with Grant. He was good in limited play early, earning more minutes, then James was suspended and he really stepped up his game, then James came back and he’s done nothing since. Some people are speculating that the drop-off in his play has been the result of a loss of confidence since he’s been on a very short leash ever since James returned. And perhaps there’s some truth to that, but my sense is that because we’re getting zoned by everyone nowadays, he’s much less effective on the court than when Syracuse was facing normal man to man defenses.

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