The Syracuse Men’s Basketball team has four non-conference losses for the first time since 1997. But it’s the season of hope, so let’s not panic. The Orange have demonstrated marked improvement over the last two outings, remain at No. 33 in the KenPom rankings, have no losses to teams ranked outside the KenPom top 100, and have lost to teams with a combined record of 38-8.
To translate these positive signs into a successful 2015, here are the top 10 things that the Syracuse Men’s Basketball Team would like for Christmas:
10. Support for the starting guards. Trevor Cooney and Kaleb Joseph are playing 35 and 33 minutes per game, respectively. Jim Boeheim likes to say that his players are young and can handle consistently high levels of playing time, but one need only look to Tyler Ennis and CJ Fair to find high-minutes players who looked more sluggish at the end of the season than they did at the start. If Ron Patterson can provide Cooney and Joseph some rest as he did against Colgate, the team will be able to continue its development well into March.
9. Consistent 3-point shooting. Nothing speaks more to the level of struggle this Syracuse team has had from the 3-point arc than the fact that they shot 10-20 against Colgate – improving their team percentage by nearly 5 percent in a single game – and still rank 337th in Division 1. At least they’re not dead last anymore. For this Syracuse team to be successful, it will need to be more consistent from distance, not just against cupcakes but also into the ACC schedule. This starts with Trevor Cooney, but if he continues his recent success, defenses will key on him even more. This will leave open shots for Joseph and Michael Gbinije, and they need to knock them down.
8. Good Tyler Roberson. Tyler Roberson oozes potential. Sometimes it’s just a flash, like when he made a beautiful spinning drive to the basket against Villanova. Other times, it’s more consistently visible, like when he dominated the boards in that same game. But between these glimpses of greatness, he has often looked lost on the court. His teammates are frequently pointing him where to go, both on offense and defense. If he can get the mental aspect of the game down, Roberson has the physical tools to be an X-factor for the Orange. He leads the team in percentage of available offensive rebounds he corrals, and he has scored more points per possession than Chris McCullough, Kaleb Joseph, or Michael Gbinije.
7. Healthy Dajuan Coleman. It’s easy to forget now, especially with ESPN consistently touting McCullough as SU’s highest ranked recruit since Carmelo Anthony, but Coleman was actually rated more highly coming out of high school than McCullough (18th vs 19th in the RSCI composite). Coleman has been plagued by knee injuries since he stepped on campus, which has prevented him from living up to these high expectations. Coleman is back at practice now, but the Post Standard reports that it’s looking increasingly likely he will redshirt this season. It would be a nice Christmas present if Coleman ends up able to play this season, but at the end of the day we all just want him to get healthy.
6. Frontcourt depth. With Coleman unable to play, Syracuse only has two true centers on its roster: Rakeem Christmas and Chinoso Obokoh. Boeheim has been unwilling to play Obokoh because of his inexperience, so McCullough has frequently had to slide over from power forward to center when Christmas is out of the game. With only two trusted options at the position, Syracuse is vulnerable to foul trouble, as evidenced by the Villanova game when both Christmas and McCullough fouled out. Christmas is averaging 5 fouls per 40 minutes and McCullough averages 3.9. During the brief moments that Obokoh has subbed in, he has been even worse, averaging 8.4 fouls per 40 minutes. ACC teams will continue to pound the ball inside trying to draw fouls and get the big men out of the game. It would be a nice Christmas surprise if Obokoh can provide serious minutes off the bench this season. Barring that, Syracuse needs its starting big men to be more careful.
5. Aggressive Gbinije. Coach Boeheim made it clear before the season that he expected big things from Michael Gbinije. He was slotted in the role of 6th man to come off the bench and play starters minutes – the same role in which Dion Waiters, Kris Joseph, and James Southerland had previously flourished. Instead, Gbinije was inconsistent and seemed to lack confidence. He had trouble getting his 3-point shot to fall, and he didn’t provide the leadership that the team needed. Since moving into the starting lineup, however, Gbinije has been a different player. He’s shooting 33 percent from behind the arc, averaging nearly 4 assists per game, and creating offense by driving to the basket. For Syracuse to be successful, it needs an aggressive Gbinije who opens up the court by slashing through the defense to either score or dish to a big man.
4. A marque win. Syracuse is a better team than its record shows. The team has no bad losses, it’s had a chance to win every game down the stretch except against California, and it’s still ranked No. 33 in the KenPom rankings. The Orange even remains No. 27 in the vaunted “Bilas Index” maintained by ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. While this gives hope that the Orange are better than they have demonstrated, unless the team beats a few good teams it will find itself in the NIT at year’s end. SU’s RPI slipped to No. 65 despite a strong showing against Colgate, showing how dependent the rating index is on strength of schedule. Syracuse will have plenty of opportunities for signature wins in the ACC with 5 conference opponents in the AP top 25. SU fans should hope Boeheim can pull a victory against Duke, Louisville or Virginia out of his stocking.
3. Careful Kaleb Joseph. There is no doubt that Joseph has a long way to go before he is leading the team at the level of Syracuse’s recent NBA-caliber point guards. But perhaps more than any other player, Joseph has demonstrated progress over the first third of the season. He looked totally lost at times during SU’s games at Madison Square Garden, he found himself benched during the second half against St. John’s, and he turned the ball over eight times against Louisiana Tech’s press. But against Villanova and Colgate, he appeared more composed. He used his quickness to attack the basket, picked the right spots to use his mid-range jumper, and helped facilitate the offense. He wasn’t perfect by any means, combining for 6 turnovers and 0-4 from distance. But he racked up 13 assists, and the 3-pointers he missed were open shots. If Kaleb continues to improve and run the offense more carefully, Syracuse will have a lot to be thankful for in 2015.
2. Stronger Chris McCullough. Despite his struggles against Villanova and Colgate, McCullough has shown flashes this season of why he continues to be projected as a 1st round NBA Draft pick this spring. We all know he has the athleticism, length, and ability to be a great player. But the one consistent knock on his game is that he has not gone strong enough to the basket. Numerous times during the season, even against smaller opponents, McCullough has opted for layups rather than a powerful dunk, sometimes seeing the ball carom off the rim. This all comes down to strength. Recent opponents have out-muscled McCullough, preventing him from using his long arms to grab rebounds and go strong to the basket. Strength takes time to build, but hopefully McCullough finds some barbells under his Christmas tree.
1. Christmas. Rakeem Christmas has been SU’s best and most consistent player this season. He has been in Ken Pomeroy’s top 10 Player of the Year standings for much of the season, although he recently dropped out. Still, he has grabbed nearly 20 percent of available defensive rebounds, blocked 8.6% of opponents’ shots, has a 64.3 percent true shooting percentage (taking into account free throws and 3-pointers), and has an assist rate roughly the same as Trevor Cooney. His only trouble has been is consistent foul trouble. If his production were spread over 40 minutes, he would average 22.4 points and 11.4 rebounds. SU’s offense flows through Christmas about 25 percent of the time, and all the team should want for Christmas is for that number to be higher.