What Syracuse basketball’s young starters need to improve

Syracuse's younger players have a lot to work on
Syracuse’s younger players have a lot to work on

Last weekend’s close game against Hampton revealed the Syracuse men’s basketball team has a long way to go. Syracuse is relying on three newcomers to its staring five, two of whom are freshmen. Two games into the young season, these newcomers are already demonstrating the areas they need to improve but also their great potential.

After the victory over Hampton, coach Jim Boeheim gave a blunt assessment of his freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph. “He played like a freshman point guard,” he said. “He made a bad bounce pass to the post late. He has to push it better in transition.”

Through two games, Joseph has compiled 11 assists and 7 turnovers, a 1.6-1 ratio. This is a far cry from Tyler Ennis’s 3.2-1 ratio last year, but not all of those turnovers were as bad as Boeheim described. Except for a weak feed to the post against Hampton and a lazy bounce pass at the top of the key against Kennesaw State – two classic freshman mistakes – all of Joseph’s turnovers have come from pushing the pace. This is a good sign.

» Related: Rakeem Christmas has another quality game for Syracuse

Joseph is getting in transition, pushing the ball up the court, and attacking the basket. This will lead to a higher turnover rate, but it will also help to spark the Orange offense, which was often stagnant last year. This will pay huge dividends for SU over the long term as Joseph learns to cut down on careless turnovers in the half court.

“He has to get down and use his speed, get in the lane and get it to somebody for an easy play,” Boeheim said. “He did that a couple times. He has to do more of that.”

Chris McCullough, like Joseph, has been asked to step into a large role as a freshman. He has showcased a silky smooth jump shot at times, but he is shooting just 47.6 percent from the field. His inability to finish strong around the basket is a big reason why.

Several times throughout the game against Hampton, McCullough went up for finger rolls rather than dunking the ball and saw the ball roll off the rim. Boeheim gave him a long lecture after one such miss, and you could even lip-read Joseph telling McCullough, “Dunk it!”

Fortunately, McCullough is a terrific athlete and dunking will come simply with a change of mindset, rather than the development of any particular skill. What will take more work is McCullough’s rebounding.

After achieving a double-double in his first game against a significantly undersized Kennesaw State team, the 6’-10’’ forward managed just 4 rebounds against Hampton. In the two games, he managed to corral 14.1 percent of available rebounds, just 1 percent more than BJ Johnson and 9 percent fewer than Rakeem Christmas.

The problem is McCullough’s slender, 220 lb. frame. Multiple times against Hampton, the Pirate players pushed him out of the way to secure a missed shot. McCullough has the potential to be a prolific rebounder playing on the side of the zone, but first he needs to put on weight. A season in the Syracuse weight room will help.

» Related: BJ Johnson shows improvement in win over Kennesaw State

Although he will likely start every game of the season, Tyler Roberson appears to be the
“quick hook guy” in Boeheim’s rotation. It was only a matter of seconds before he was sitting on the bench against Hampton. But in that same game Roberson showed flashes of why he’s in the starting line up.

He played only 16 minutes and finished with just 7 points, but he attacked the basket much more than he did against Kennesaw State. Roberson’s propensity is to settle for jump shots. Through his first two seasons, he has failed to get enough arc on his jumpers, often sending up flat shots that careen off the rim. In his career, he is shooting just 32.8 percent from the floor – an astonishingly low number for a forward.

But when Roberson gets to the basket, he can be effective. He shot 3-6 against Hampton compared with 5-14 against Kennesaw State. If he begins to attack the basket more consistently, he will also get to the free throw line where he is a 67 percent shooter.

The good news is that these newcomers to SU’s starting line up all have tremendous potential and know what they need to do to improve. They will start the process tonight against California.

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About Jeff Irvine 107 Articles
Jeff has covered Massachusetts Minutemen basketball for The Maroon and White and The Daily Hampshire Gazette. He has also written for The Daily Orange. Jeff is an Amherst, Massachusetts native, and graduated from Syracuse University in 2006. Follow him on Twitter @jeffreyirvine.