After dropping its first four ACC contests, Syracuse, with Jim Boeheim back on the bench and in full grimace mode regarding the league’s scheduling philosophy, has won six of its last seven games; a run that started with a 22-point stomping of league doormat Boston College. So as it continues clawing and scraping for an at-large berth, it’s fair to ask how Syracuse became a team with a thin bench (two freshmen see almost all the minutes), almost no inside punch, and far too reliant on draining threes to win. The search for answers stretches all the way back to the 2012-13 season.
MCW & NBA
The Orange was a questionable charge call on Brandon Triche away from advancing to the National Championship game against Louisville. But the loss to Michigan in the Final Four also resulted in the end of Michael Carter-Williams’ college career. The sophomore was selected eleventh by Philadelphia in the draft that year.
The Heir Apparent
The following year not only was Syracuse’s inaugural season in the ACC but it also brought about a replacement for MCW; freshman Tyler Ennis. And Ennis was good right from the opening tip. So much so that he declared for the draft after one year and was selected eighteenth overall by Phoenix. Ennis starting in place of MCW wasn’t much of a surprise but his meteoric rise was. That meant for the third straight season, Syracuse would have a new starting point guard.
Baptism by Fire
With the unexpected departure of Ennis, freshman Kaleb Joseph was thrust into the starting role of point guard. But unlike Ennis and MCW, the transition was anything but smooth. Joseph showed flashes of brilliance at times but far too often struggled. Heading into this year, Joseph was expected to seize the position but that hasn’t been the case. The sophomore has only broken double-digit minutes in four games while scoring a total of 16 points on just five made baskets. Joseph has played in just five of 11 ACC games, has been passed in the rotation by freshman Frank Howard and is firmly entrenched on the SU bench. Barring a remarkable turnaround, Joseph seems to be a prime transfer candidate.
Ennis wasn’t the only player to unexpectedly leave Syracuse early that season. Sophomore Jerami Grant followed Ennis to The League even though Grant wasn’t a projected first round lock. Despite the opportunity to come back for one more season and play his way into a first rounder, Grant chased the dollars and the dream.
The following season saw the arrival of freshman sensation Chris McCullough. He was supposed to be the latest greatest in a long line of Syracuse freshmen and his stay in upstate New York was expected to last only one year. But McCullough was lost for the season in only his sixteenth game after suffering an ACL tear. Returning now for his sophomore year was assumed given that he wouldn’t be able to show NBA scouts what he could do against ACC competition. The lanky forward, oozing the type of potential to match the length of his wing span, declared anyway and was drafted towards the end of the first round by New Jersey.
Ron Patterson and B.J. Johnson were both part of the same recruiting class that delivered Ennis, Tyler Roberson and Chino Obokoh to Syracuse. Following the departure of Ennis, both sophomores figured to be key contributors in their second go around. That never panned out and both players transferred last offseason. Three years in and what was a five player class is basically down to just Roberson as Obokoh is a seldom used reserve.
Syracuse lacks interior scoring, size on the back of the zone and another big body to help on the glass. Syracuse must’ve thought it was getting all that when DaJuan Coleman first committed. Knee issues have derailed the big man’s career. He missed 16 games his freshman year, 19 his sophomore year, and all of the following season as he recovered from major knee surgery. Coleman has so far played in every contest this year.
Another big man who would’ve helped on the interior this year was Moustapha Diagne, one of four commits expected to arrive on campus last summer. Diagne never made it though due to an unspecified academic issue.
Part of the NCAA sanctions mandated that Boeheim miss the first nine ACC games of the year. He was eventually allowed to serve the suspension starting with the Georgetown game on December 5. The Orange went 4-5 in those nine games, three of which were in league play.
Sustained excellence is, well, hard to sustain. The best of programs suffer through a down season or two for one reason or another. Even mighty Kentucky, a recruiting juggernaut under John Calipari, found itself in the post season NIT one season after knocking off Kansas to win the national championship. Syracuse didn’t just all of a sudden become a squad fighting to stay on the right side of the bubble. But that’s its reality with seven regular season games left. So as the saying goes, let the madness begin.