Each March, 68 teams dream of cutting down the nets as the last team standing during an epic three week stretch that culminates with the Final Four. For some schools, and their devoted fan bases, the ending comes in the form of, well, madness.
After starting its season with a 25-game win streak, highlighted by winning the Maui Invitational, an 18-point comeback victory against Villanova and a win for the ages versus Duke, the Syracuse Orange appeared poised to be one of a handful of teams to have a say in deciding millions of brackets across the country. Unfortunately for Orange Nation, that was not the case. Syracuse limped into post season dropping four of its final six games. The Orange didn’t fare much better in the ACC Tournament losing a revenge game to NC State in its quarter final matchup.
But with a 3-seed in the South and two potential games 150 miles down the Thruway in Buffalo looming, hope sprung eternal. Yet, the same problems that hampered the Orange the last month of the season surfaced again when the stakes mattered most. Here’s a look at why Syracuse’s promising start turned sour.
One for Three
Syracuse’s 3-point shooting production fell mostly on Trevor Cooney. The red-shirt sophomore, in his first year as a starter, was depended upon to be a one-man gang from beyond the arc. Cooney sank 37.5 percent (90-of-240) of his 3s for the season. His accuracy dipped in conference play to 30.8 percent and wasn’t much better in the post season – ACC and NCAA tournaments – converting 5-of-18 attempts. In Syracuse’s six losses, Cooney was an abysmal 6-of-37, or 16.2 percent.
But putting the Orange’s 3-point deficiencies squarely on Cooney’s shoulders isn’t exactly fair. Unlike previous versions, this Syracuse team had limited long-range shooters. C.J. Fair, Tyler Ennis and Michael Gbinije combined to make only 69 3s all year while freshmen Ron Patterson and B.J. Johnson couldn’t crack the rotation. Gone from last year’s squad are the 168 triples from James Southerland, Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams. Southerland alone was responsible for 84 3s. Fair was a much more efficient shooter last year, 30-of-64, as opposed to this year, 24-of-87.
Yes, every team deals with injuries. They aren’t an excuse and it’s expected that they’re going to happen. Andy Rautins once missed an entire season due to a torn ACL. Ten games into that same season, Eric Devendorf tore his ACL. Injuries are a part of sports on every level. The Orange didn’t suffer any major injuries to key offensive players but it did suffer its share of injuries that limited the team in a much more subtle way.
The biggest blow was DaJuan Coleman. The sophomore played in 13 games before undergoing season-ending knee surgery. Coleman grabbed 4.2 rebounds per game despite playing only 13 minutes per contest. Not only did his loss leave Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita as a two-headed monster in the middle, it forced Jerami Grant into the starting lineup. Grant went from providing an offensive spark off the bench to the team’s starting power forward. When league play began, and Jim Boeheim shortened his bench, Gbinije and Keita became the only subs to see regular playing time.
Grant developed back issues toward the end of the season. He missed one game and parts of two others. That resulted in a thin rotation becoming even thinner. Syracuse struggled to compete on the backboards without Grant, the team’s leading rebounder at 6.8 per contest. Keita missed two games and barely played in two other games due to a knee sprain. While not counted on to score or rebound much, Keita spells Christmas, plays solid defense and provides senior leadership.
The Orange pulled so many rabbits out of its hat this season that no one should be surprised if Jim Boeheim was consistently leaving two tickets at the Carrier Dome box office for the legendary Harry Houdini. Syracuse made snatching victory from the jaws of defeat as routine as running wind sprints in practice.
The magic started in the fourth game of the season against St. Francis (NY) – yes, St. Francis – as a Gbinije layup with a minute remaining gave the Orange the lead for good. Syracuse rallied to beat Pittsburgh in the Dome on a layup by Ennis with less than two minutes to go for its next trick.
A couple of weeks later, the Orange survived an onslaught of threes by Duke (15 to be exact) including a game-tying three at the end of regulation to eke out a 91-89 OT victory in what arguably was the game of the year in college basketball. Syracuse stuck it to Pittsburgh again, this time on the road, as Ennis canned a 35-foot prayer at the buzzer to escape, 58-56.
Three days later against an NC State team that had all sorts of travel difficulties simply getting to Syracuse, lightning struck yet again as Fair converted a Christmas steal into the game-winning basket with 6.7 seconds to go were a thrilling 56-55 triumph. And finally, with the regular season winding down, Syracuse needed a blocked shot by Keita and a missed desperation three to survive on the road at Maryland. Six games, six wins. Rather a remarkable feat, yet, was it a cause for concern? Struggling to beat Duke at any venue and winning at Pittsburgh is understandable. But the other four games, especially St. Francis (NY), are games that never should’ve reached that stage if the Orange was as good as its record indicated.
SOS for the PPG
One of the hallmarks of Jim Boeheim’s teams has been the ability to rack up points the way Syracuse accumulates snow during the winter. Not so with this year’s squad. In ACC games, Syracuse averaged 63 points. The Orange broke 70 points only three times in 18 games. Conversely, it was held under 60 points in nine games – half of the league schedule.
After its 91-point outburst against Duke, the offense really struggled as it failed to score more than 60 points in six of its last 10 regular season games. With a rout of Western Michigan, 77-53, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in its pocket, the Orange ran into a Dayton team that was giving up an average of 65.2 points over its last 10 games. Not exactly a recipe for success with an offense that struggles to score.