Just three weeks ago, Syracuse was at the apex of the college basketball mountain. Undefeated. Ranked #1 in the country. Coming off an epic win over Duke at the Carrier Dome.
Here we are now with a chance to reflect after another nail-biter against Maryland on Monday and before a battle for ACC regular season supremacy on Saturday against Virginia.
The Orange, like their namesake fruit has been known to do, have certainly gone sour as of late. So, what has happened in such a short time to remove the luster from the Syracuse basketball season and cast doubt on what was a magical ride for much of the season to date?
From a broad perspective, Syracuse lost two games…in a row…after not having a loss hung on them in their first 25 games.
Starting with the Duke game in Syracuse, the Orange have outscored their opponents by a TOTAL of 17 points in their last eight games….and that’s including a 13-point win over Clemson. A Tyler Ennis 35-footer and a gift-wrapped turnover from NC State were the only two things standing between Syracuse and a four-game losing streak. For good measure, the first Duke game easily could have been a loss (albeit nothing to hang your head about), the Orange needed a career-high effort from Trevor Cooney to get past Notre Dame and Maryland had chances to steal a win from Syracuse on Monday.
With just a couple things going the other way, the Orange could have conceivably lost seven of their last eight games. Now, the chatter that used to yield comments such as “these guys have a knack for closing games out” is giving away to remarks like “maybe these guys just aren’t good enough to overpower opponents.” Some believers have turned into skeptics.
But, more specifically, what has caused this month of heart-stopping games?
First, the scoring punch just isn’t there. In the last seven games, the Orange have averaged just over 58 points per game and have shot just 39 percent as a team. For the season, Syracuse averages just under 69 points per game, which is good for just 244th in the country.
When Syracuse has been at its best, it has had multiple guys having solid scoring nights together. Usually two, three, or four of Ennis, Cooney, C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant have been able to help shoulder the scoring load. In the last seven games, there have only been six times where a Syracuse player has scored more than 14 points (Fair did it three times, Grant, Cooney and Ennis all did it once). More times than not lately, the team has had to rely on one guy being able to carry them to a victory.
Depth has also squeezed the Orange recently. When DaJuan Coleman went down for the season with a knee injury, Jim Boeheim’s rotation was trimmed to seven guys a majority of the time. Between injuries (Baye Moussa Keita’s knee and Grant’s back flaring up) and foul trouble (Keita and Rakeem Christmas both getting their fourth fouls early in the second half against Duke at Cameron, most notably), the Orange are devoid of a third true big man when Keita and Christmas are on the bench. Grant is not a center. Fair is not really a power forward. When Boeheim has had to shift things around, guys have had to fulfill unfamiliar roles and their effectiveness has suffered as a result.
Listen…a few losses were bound to happen. Most years, a win is a win…until it’s not. After a subpar stretch over the last three weeks, wins are no longer wins. Close wins have fueled thoughts that, not only is Syracuse not as good as its stellar 26-2 record suggests, but that the Orange may not even be as good two or three of the other teams in the ACC.
That’s what March is for, though. Every team will have its ups and downs throughout the season. Every coach just wants to have his team peaking at the right time and Boeheim has been able to rally the troops pretty well in March in recent seasons.
Maybe Syracuse peaked that magical Saturday in central New York against the Blue Devils. Maybe there are better times ahead.
The focus for the rest of the season should not be getting back to being #1 in the country. It should not be all about getting the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Rather, it should be about getting to the East region in the NCAA Tournament. By being able travel to Buffalo and New York City on the road to the Final Four, Syracuse’s trip to Dallas would be a lot easier to meander with serious home court advantage in those locations.
Games like the Duke games, the Virginia game on Saturday and those in the ACC Tournament will help direct the bus and determine whether Syracuse will stay in New York State in mid- to late-March or if a plane is going to be the necessary form of travel.
The last time the Orange got to stay close to home for four games in the NCAA Tournament, it paid dividends for Boeheim’s Bunch, all the way to New Orleans for the title. It’s time for Syracuse to see if it can get back on the highway to success after taking a detour these past three weeks.