How the NCAA scholarship penalty still haunts Syracuse basketball

Jalen Carey Virginia
Jalen Carey looks to drive. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

Do you want to kill a basketball program in one easy step?

Just take away some of their scholarships for a few years.

I know this sounds like a trite excuse for the roughest start to a Syracuse basketball season, but please read the whole column before passing judgement. It’s over 3,000 words. Commit to reading it or don’t.

Only the elite of the elite programs that annually recruit the elite of elite escape this reality. That means Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, and North Carolina are probably exempt from this fate. Everyone else, including Syracuse, is fair game.

Elite recruits are historically rare at Syracuse. For every Carmelo Anthony, there are players like Gerry McNamara, Hakim Warrick, and C.J. Fair. Among players who started at SU in 2001 or later, there are 17 players who scored over 1,000 points in their career. Only Jonny Flynn did it in two seasons.

The takeaway? The Orange have traditionally flourished behind deep rosters of veteran players who spend three or more years on campus. Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, Tyler Ennis, Jonny Flynn, Donte Greene, Tyler Lydon, Chris McCullough, Malachi Richardson, and Dion Waiters are exceptions at SU. All of those guys were first round NBA draft picks, so they were absolutely right to jump and get guaranteed money.

But, lots of beloved star players at Syracuse sat early and developed on campus. This was enabled by the team having a full complement of scholarships at their disposal. Losing those scholarships due to NCAA penalty set back the program significantly and, even though those restrictions are over, their effects are still being felt.

Let’s go into the wayback machine and check out what’s happened with the Orange and the numbers game. We’ll start a year before the team was stripped of scholarships, among other penalties. Here’s a quick summary of each season and its subsequent roster churn:

2013-14: The Orange started off 25-0 and limped to the finish line. SU got bounced in the first round of both the ACC and NCAA Tournaments, ending a bright season prematurely.

Chris McCullough (#21 overall in 24-7 composite recruit rankings) and Kaleb Joseph (#48) committed before their senior seasons, taking spots to replace outgoing seniors C.J. Fair and Baye Moussa Keita on the SU roster. At the end of the season, both Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant declare for the NBA draft. With Ennis and Grant declaring so late, the Orange would be shorthanded the following season because there was not much the coaching staff could do to fill those empty spots in April.

2014-15: SU struggles mightily in conference play and disqualifies themselves from postseason play along with taking an NCAA punishment, eventually resulting in the loss of eight scholarships over a four-year span. They give up three scholarships in 2015-16 (more on that below), two in both 2016-17 and 2017-18, and one in 2018-19.

Chris McCullough got hurt during the season and declared for the NBA draft after the campaign, following the graduating Rakeem Christmas out the door. B.J. Johnson and Ron Patterson also chose to transfer. The Orange already had Frank Howard (#79), Tyler Lydon (#72), and Malachi Richardson (#34) lined up to come in as recruits and Paschal Chukwu transfers in from Providence, leaving three scholarships unused for the following season.

2015-16: Syracuse opts to leave those scholarships unused to try to start their penalty early, a term the NCAA agrees to. A good defense and a little bit of good fortune carries Syracuse’s ten-man roster to a surprise Final Four berth, highlighted by a dramatic late comeback driven by Malachi Richardson to defeat Virginia to gain that Final Four spot.

» Related: Growing pains and struggling offense sink Syracuse against Iowa

Trevor Cooney, Michael Gbinije, and Chinonso Obokoh wrap their eligibility and Richardson leaves early, a surprise resulting from his NCAA Tournament play. Passed in the rotation during the season, Kaleb Joseph opts to transfer. With five players leaving, only five scholarship players remain on the roster. Tyus Battle (#34), Matthew Moyer (#66), and Taurean Thompson (#74) join them, leaving three slots open. SU opts to try to stay afloat by filling two of those spots with graduate transfers John Gillon and Andrew White III.

2016-17: A lousy defense tanks the Orange, who bow out of the NIT after their second game. Tyler Lydon declares for the draft and graduate transfers Gillon and White depart after their lone year of eligibility, as do DaJuan Coleman and Tyler Roberson. Once more, SU is left with five players on the roster. Late in the summer, Taurean Thompson separates himself from the program, eventually ending up at Seton Hall.

The four remining scholarship players will be joined by four recruits – Oshae Brissett, Marek Dolezaj, Bourama Sidibe, and Howard Washington. All four are ranked in the top 300 as recruits, but outside the top 100. Geno Thorpe climbs aboard as a graduate transfer as player #9 and Elijah Hughes takes a scholarship, transferring from East Carolina, but sitting out the season as player #10. As in the previous seasons, Syracuse heads into the season with an unused scholarship.

2017-18: Thorpe leaves after a handful of games as SU evolves into a defense-first team once more, scratching out three NCAA Tournament wins by a total of 11 points and earning a Sweet Sixteen berth. After losing his spot in the lineup, Matthew Moyer opts to transfer after the season. Battle declares for the draft, but returns, making eight returnees.

Those eight are joined by the three-man 2018 recruiting class of Buddy Boeheim, Jalen Carey, and Robert Braswell. Only Carey (#61) is in the top 100 and Braswell just misses the top 150. SU will go into the last year of scholarship penalties with one available scholarship unused again.

2018-19: Syracuse again struggles on offense most of the year, but musters some highlight performances, most notably a win at #1 Duke. The Orange get bounced in the first round of the NCAAs. Howard and Chukwu’s eligibility are wrapped and Battle declares again for the draft, meaning he is gone. Brissett also surprised by opting for the draft and stays in it, leaving seven returning players.

John Bol Ajak, Jesse Edwards, Joe Girard III, Brycen Goodine, and Quincy Guerrier make up the 2019 class, which is rated 33rd. Goodine is barely in the top 100 while Edwards and Girard hover around #200. Edwards was a late add to the class, committing in April. Even in their first season back a full complement of 13 scholarships available, the Orange once again have one unused.

So, what are the takeaways from all of these names and headcounts and recruiting rankings?

1.) When you do not subsist on elite prospects, you need time to develop almost all of your players, even those who are ranked in the top 100 of their recruiting class. Syracuse’s historical focus on players ranked outside the top 25 (Chris McCullough is the last player signed who ranked in the top 30 of his class) means they are not getting tons of guys walking onto campus expected to be immediate contributors of significance.

When your backbone is players who are outside the top end of a recruiting class, they usually get to campus, practice, develop, and get scraps of minutes around the edges or just redshirt to become better by working on skills, transforming their body, learning the team’s offense and defense, etc.

As they improve, they become a more important part of the roster, earning more playing time, more responsibility while on the court, and so on. Some players develop faster than others and are ready to contribute ahead of schedule while others do not.

Redshirting without injury is often a very valuable asset. Elijah Hughes transferred in after playing a season at East Carolina and the year he was required to sit out enabled him to improve his overall fitness and outside shooting. That time spent working on himself and his game enabled him to be a very valuable contributor last season and develop into the team’s leader as a redshirt junior this year.

2.) Every loss to the roster hurts. While some obviously damage the future of a team more than others, any time a player leaves, it hurts. Some departures, particularly in their timing, hurt more than others.

The Syracuse program was able to prepare for Tyus Battle’s departure prior to his junior year. Battle declaring for the draft and returning to the Orange was a sure sign that he would be departing the program after his junior year, barring significant injury.

Much more difficult to deal with is the loss of players who surprisingly declare for the NBA draft at the end of the season and remain in it. It usually happens for a good reason, such as Malachi Richardson’s explosion against Virginia in the NCAA Tournament propelling him into the NBA draft. But, since his jump came at the end of the season, all SU could do was look for a graduate transfer, which only helps for one season instead of filling the slot over the long-term.

» Related: What can be done to fix Syracuse basketball this season?

Even when a player transfers for varying reasons filed under “things did not work out”, it still hurts a program. Matthew Moyer was a flawed player who was passed in the playing rotation as a sophomore and transferred after that season.

Moyer wanted to pursue an opportunity to play more, followed that desire, and quite likely would have done so regardless of the available number of scholarships. Had he stayed at SU, it is not difficult to imagine Jim Boeheim turning to him as an option off the bench for energy and rebounding in a game such as last week’s contest against Penn State where the Orange were mostly helpless on the glass. Even players like Moyer who did not fill a major role could have stayed and filled a valuable one, even if a significant portion of it was “tough player in practice who makes other players work harder to improve at rebounding against stronger opponents.”

When any player leaves, though, his roster spot defaults to “zero”. No player, no experience in the zone, no knowledge of offensive sets, nothing. So, even when a successful graduate transfer enters the program, there is a learning curve. Andrew White III and John Gillon, for all their offensive explosion capabilities, spent a lot of time on the floor as part of the worst defense in well over a decade at Syracuse.

Then, they also turned into zero the next season. The hole they patched over was still there, waiting to be filled.

3.) The holes left by departures are long-lasting. Let’s look at the recruiting class that is Syracuse’s current senior class:

That’s it. No one. The recruiting class that would currently be in their fourth year in the program was comprised of Tyus Battle, Matthew Moyer, and Taurean Thompson. Do you think the Orange would be helped by any of those three staying longer? Do you think the program has been hurt by their absences?

Thompson was on campus one year, Moyer two, and Battle three. SU is taking lumps today because of players who have not been in the 315 area code for over 18 months. You can belittle Thompson and Moyer for their shortcomings on the floor, but had they stayed, they almost certainly would have helped and would still be helping the program.

4.) When you have several blank spaces where you should have scholarship players, everyone but the roster’s most established players at that time are placed on an accelerated path as everyone slides up a couple spots in the pecking order by default. Guys who should slot in as top reserves get promoted to the starting lineup, fringe rotation players become the bench options, and redshirting to develop is no longer an option because the team needs physically able bodies in case of injury to rotation players.

A redshirt freshman with a season (and a couple summer sessions and offseason workouts) of development is well ahead of a true freshman. And that player is more ready after a second season. The true freshman may simply not be as ready, physically, mentally, or emotionally to play and may not develop as well as a result, even with playing time. Just because we only see games does not mean those are the only opportunity for player development.

Bourama Sidibe is a good example on the current roster of a player who needed time to develop and what happened as a result of not having that luxury. Had SU had a full complement of players when he arrived on campus, Sidibe would have been a candidate to redshirt as a freshman to work on his physical development while learning the intricacies and calls of the zone.

Instead, he had to play as a freshman and suffered a knee injury that never fully healed through his sophomore season, holding back his development. Obviously, the knee injury could not be planned for, but with a full complement of players on the roster, the possibility of him medically redshirting as a sophomore instead of burning a year of eligibility for 293 minutes of playing time existed.

In a normal season, as an incoming freshman ranked as the #201 recruit in his class, Joe Girard III would likely slot in as a fourth or fifth guard on a Power 5 roster. He might even be redshirted to work on his athleticism and adjust to the step up in competition. Instead, he’s on a roster dealing with the effects of years of being shorthanded and has been propelled into the starting lineup. As should be expected, he has not looked fully ready to go against major college competition.

5.) Recruiting is an inexact science. It’s easy to lean on the rankings and build expectations off them, but they do not tell the full story of a player. Elijah Hughes was ranked #200 in his class, approximately 130 spots behind both Matthew Moyer and Taurean Thompson. Those rankings look ridiculous now.

Hughes also attended Syracuse’s elite basketball camp. The coaching staff, which included Mike Hopkins at the time, got a long, up close look at Hughes and liked him, just not enough to offer him while he was in high school.

The foreign exchange rate is still being hammered out with recruiting rankings, too. Canadian Oshae Brissett and Slovakian Marek Dolezaj were both outside the top 100 of their recruiting class, but played immediately at SU. Brissett was a nightly double-double threat out of the box and Dolezaj became a sometime starter and sixth man on a Sweet Sixteen team. While he has been blocked by a logjam at forward, Quincy Guerrier looks like he would qualify as a top-100 player as a freshman this year.

At the same time, several higher-rated recruits were not ready to go when they arrived at SU. Kaleb Joseph was thrown into the fire as a freshman and his poor perimeter shooting handcuffed the offense. Taurean Thompson had quite a polished low post game for a freshman to go with equally poor defense, including a penchant for fouling.

Joseph got passed in the rotation as a sophomore, but Thompson was a very promising prospect who averaged 20.6 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per 40 minutes as a freshman at SU. His presence on the roster the last couple seasons may have been a more appealing option at center to a team that had trouble scoring than Paschal Chukwu.

So, where does that all leave Syracuse now?

Young. Inexperienced. Players who should not be seeing the floor are getting a rude welcome to high-level college basketball led by a head coach being decried for being too old, too stubborn, for not recruited in decades, for surrounding himself with assistants who are yes-men who cannot recruit, who needs to retire, and so on.

(Yes, Boeheim should have tried to bring in one more player in the 2016-17 recruiting class when he knew he would have the spot instead of leaving a scholarship slot empty for two years. That player would now be a redshirt sophomore or junior. At the same time, it is also possible he felt that sliding that extra scholarship to an academically successful walk-on to try to game the APR system while keeping the team afloat on the floor with a short roster was a better use of the scholarship.)

Boeheim can take it. He has survived worse. In fact, he and his players probably did a lot better than what they should those years when the roster was shorthanded. In those four seasons, they made a Final Four, a Sweet Sixteen, and another NCAA berth with rosters comprised of solely recruits and traditional transfers, save for the handful of games graduate transfer Geno Thorpe put in before skipping out on the team midseason.

Those tournament results are actually really impressive, but they get discredited because the team barely squeaked into the tournament all three times and either took advantage of Michigan State being upset and an improbable rally against Virginia or eked out three wins by a total of 11 points, including beating Michigan State, before losing to Duke by four points in the Sweet Sixteen. Instead of being admired for the accomplishments of getting into the dance short-handed and winning games once there, fingers get pointed at both coaches and players not being good enough. Cool, cool.

To close, one last note that goes out to anyone who has ever requested that Jim Boeheim get better players. It doesn’t really fit in anywhere nicely, so it is getting tagged on here.

One of the rare chances for an NCAA student-athlete to have any power in the collegiate athletic experience comes before they even become one. That opportunity comes when a recruit picks the school they believe is best for them.

Once more, for clarity: A recruit picks the school they believe is best for them.

Jim Boeheim does not go to the basketball player store, stroll down the “high school” aisle, and pick players out. He does not approach the counter and ask for the #41, #68, and #94 players.

The recruits pick him and his program.

Yes, Boeheim decides who he will offer a scholarship to and is responsible for developing the players that choose to accept scholarships, but he does not pick them and, perhaps more importantly, cannot make them commit to Syracuse, just as, at the beginning of this column, I wrote “Commit to reading it or don’t.”

Somehow, the fact of who decides what recruits come to Syracuse gets lost in the shuffle.

Anyway, with a dozen current players on scholarship and two more committed for next season, the Orange will finally get back to playing with a full deck… once someone leaves. Hopefully, that loss will not have significant long-term effects on the program as it builds back up.

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Jim Stechschulte
About Jim Stechschulte 599 Articles
A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.