Stop me if this sounds familiar: Syracuse is staring down a potential double-digit seed in the NCAA tournament as Selection Sunday approaches.
Defensively, Jim Boeheim’s crew looks as poised as it has ever been, but the offense still seems a mystery. The Orange once again finds itself as a middling team in the ACC struggling to crack the 20-win mark.
It has been the same disappointing story for Syracuse in recent years, constantly following the same plot. What makes this year tougher to swallow is that it was supposed to be a break from the inconsistent play. Yet, even with all of the talent Syracuse brought back this season, the team has struggled to develop an identity.
It was yet another year of high expectations for a team with a ton of returning players. The expectations were certainly not met. Syracuse can erase a number of the bad memories with strong play in the ACC or NCAA tournament, but the lessons of this season should not be forgotten.
Much like 2016-17 when the Orange brought back a talent-rich group headlined by Tyler Lydon, Tyler Roberson, Trevor Cooney and Tyus Battle fresh off a Final Four appearance, this team started the year ranked at 16 according to the AP poll.
Instead, the Orange tumbled from the rankings after just two weeks and never returned.
SU essentially brought back its entire roster from a year ago. Matthew Moyer transferred after he failed to take hold in the lineup. Former walk-on Braedon Bayer graduated early and transferred to Siena. Meanwhile, reserve guard Howard Washington took a redshirt after suffering a stroke.
So the Orange returned all five of its starters in Battle, Frank Howard, Oshae Brissett, Marek Dolezaj and Paschal Chukwu. It actually had the luxury of bumping Dolezaj to the bench in favor of East Carolina transfer Elijah Hughes.
Plus, it still had bench contributor Bourama Sidibe, who was finally healthy after battling a knee injury most of the season. In other words, SU brought back a ton of talent.
If that wasn’t enough, Syracuse had incoming recruits in the form of Jalen Carey, Robert Braswell and Buddy Boeheim. At the beginning of the year, fans clamored for Boheim to redshirt.
Instead, he has easily been the best freshman on the team, which is both a credit to him and a reflection on the impact of Braswell and Carey. Carey already seems to be shades of Kaleb Joseph, or possibly Howard.
Obviously, fans will be hoping for the latter. After pouring on 26 points early in the season against UConn, Carey has faded to the background, racking up DNPs throughout conference play. He clearly needs some time to develop, much like Howard did. If he is playing at Howard’s level in a few years, I think fans will take that.
Lack of freshmen contributions aside, Syracuse still lacks an identity.
On offense that is, as the zone remains as constant as ever. Battle, Hughes and Brissett all average north of 12 points per game.
However, the Orange is plagued by inefficiency and a lack of playmaking. The is no originality to the plan of attack. One of its top three scorers tries to win a matchup using a ball screen or Howard/Boeheim steps into a 3. Something very close to this unfolds on just about every offensive possession.
It hasn’t yielded much in terms of positive results. Syracuse ranks tied for 261st in the country for points per game. When you adjust for pace, the results get a little better, but the Orange still ranks 159th.
Efficiency is nowhere to be found either, as ‘Cuse comes in tied for 285th in the nation in shooting percentage. Boeheim, Brissett and Howard are all individually shooting below 40 percent on the season.
Another telling stat is Syracuse’s assist rate, which stands 223rd nationally. Meaningful ball movement is hard to come by for the Orange as the team spends most of the time passing on the perimeter.
Howard leads the team with a meager 2.9 assists per game, the fewest by any player to lead an ACC team. The Orange also has an obscenely high turnover rate, ranking 300th best in the country.
Additionally, Syracuse has no low-post threat to speak of as Chukwu and Sidibe offer little offensive functionality outside of finishing lobs or putbacks. It makes any kind of high-low action or the possibility for a kickout three nearly impossible.
Between no offensive-minded big man and a lack of pass-first guard anywhere on the roster, it is no wonder SU continues to struggle.
It is time for change. Syracuse needs to stop playing a brand of offense that represents a throwback to the volume shooting days of the early 2000s. That might have worked when Melo was in town, but it does not fly anymore. This team needs an offensive overhaul.
Recruiting and style of play should reflect that. It cannot happen overnight, but this season must act as a wake up call to the Syracuse men’s basketball program.