Inconvenient Truth: Syracuse’s Biggest Problem Has Been Coaching

There is an uncomfortable wind blowing into Central New York today, whipping around Orange Nation. Not only has the reality set in of no NCAA Tournament after the Selection Committee snubbed Syracuse last night, but that more egregiously this has become the new norm. We are one very gracious Selection Sunday away from three straight lonely Big Dances.

In ’15, Syracuse self-punished the program in the wake of the NCAA probe and took itself out of the postseason. But that was a convenient sacrificial lamb, a year that finished 18-13, 9-9 in the ACC and was a whole lot like this one. It was a bubble team that likely would’ve been left out anyway. In ’16, the Orange went 23-14, again 9-9 in ACC play, and lost its first league tournament game to Pitt. Most experts thought the Orange would be sitting home. Instead, SU made the most of its opportunity and rode all the way to the Final Four. And then last night happened, where SU’s disastrous early schedule (losses to UConn, Georgetown, St. John’s, BC), along with being a putrid 2-11 away from the Dome, plus once again being one-and-done in the ACC tourney, meant no bid.

Let’s face the cold, hard facts: Jim Boeheim is not as effective as he once was. In three attempts, he has yet to win a game in the ACC tourney. Could you imagine Syracuse being 0-for-3 at MSG in the old Big East tourney? Granted, this ACC is better than the old Big East… but not by much. I watched four straight days of ACC Tournament this year courtside, and one thing was abundantly clear. It was not talent which Syracuse lacked to make a run in that tournament.

No doubt Duke has a parade of top notch talent, and a pair of lottery NBA draft picks in Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles. Florida State also has a pair of players that will be taken in the first round most likely in Isaac and Bacon. But those are the only two schools in the ACC that mock drafts peg as having more NBA talent than Syracuse. The Orange have one potential NBA first round pick in Tyler Lydon, just like UNC’s Justin Jackson, Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell, NC State’s Dennis Smith and Wake’s John Collins.

Syracuse landed two ESPN Top 100 kids last year including Tyus Battle, who had offers from Duke and Louisville. Tauren Thompson had an offer from Arizona. In ’15, SU had 4 ESPN Top 100 commits. Malachi Richardson had offers from Arizona and Villanova. Tyler Lydon had offers from Iowa State and Notre Dame. In ’14, the Orange landed Chris McCullough, who had offers from FSU and Kansas. The common thread? All of these programs which SU beat to recruits are better teams right now than the Orange. The issue has not been talent.

I believe Boeheim’s final years have been marked by an inefficiency in coaching. The program is reeling in top notch talent every year, a recruiting proficiency that exploded after Carmelo Anthony and the ’03 title. SU is now a land of NBA lottery picks and a parade of early departures. Yes, some of that is a development of good coaching. But watch SU closely on a regular basis and you see just how sloppy so much of its in-game structure is. Running offensive sets is a headache, execution out of timeouts is a problem, decision-making on the floor is often poor. The zone defense is still a trademark, but it often just disguises players’ inability in using more sophisticated defensive techniques. When Syracuse has found itself in holes to inferior teams it has gone in the tank, like the St. John’s and Boston College games this year. A good indicator of coaching is how the team responds in adversity. SU was a disaster this year away from home, and games like at Notre Dame showed the discrepancy in a well-coached team and a sloppy one. The Irish do not have more talent than the Orange. But they are a far more disciplined team, a much more accountable and consistent squad, and made it all the way to the ACC title game and a 5-seed in the Big Dance.

Players who commit mistakes under Boeheim often get relegated to the dog house, confidence shot, never to return. Great coaches coax the best out of players that make errors. I think Boeheim’s patience with everything (it was never abundant) has eroded even more over time, meaning he’s less likely to invest the time in truly fixing player or team problems. He fights with the media more now, he’s cranky over just about everything (including Greensboro). It’s like everything is wearing thin for him (and that’s saying something since he’s always been a curmudgeon). I think you can make the argument Boeheim is now a middle-of-the-road coach in his own conference. There are 6-7 coaches in the league that would do more with SU’s roster.

There was a time when Boeheim was one of the best in-game tacticians in the sport, and an undying work ethic that essentially willed this program into the national conversation. He was a younger man at that time, the era of the early-to-mid ’80s where he was every bit the difference-maker on the sideline as Bob Knight or Coach K. No longer. There’s a reason Duke, UNC, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville and Michigan State have been that much better than Syracuse for years. Those coaches are that much more effective right now. Yes, there is top tier talent coming through many of those schools. But it’s also what you do with that talent. Many blamed Syracuse’s new faces for the early problems this year, but why don’t we ask the same thing of John Calipari? He has an entirely new group of star players every single year, and somehow they consistently coalesce into winners. Coach K has embraced the one-and-done culture now, he won a title recently with it. These coaches are constantly dealing with roster turnover.

Syracuse has basically been a .500 team in the ACC the last three years, and has never won a game in the league tourney. The Orange has had talent far superior to a middle of the pack team in the conference. Simply put, SU has not gotten the most out of its players since getting to the ACC, and that goes to coaching. And last year’s fortuitous nod into the NCAA tourney and run to the Final Four covers up some of the blemishes. The coaching, specifically Jim Boeheim, must be better or living as a bubble team becomes the new normal for SU hoops.

9 Comments on this Post

  1. Really? your going to say this is coaching, nothing to do with talent leaving early or transferring? blame solely boeheim?, he is a bad coach? he is one of the best in game tactician in the game, of those games we lost how many came down to a last shot? he was on the Olympic coaching staff 3 gold medals, because he lost his touch?, we miss the NCAA tourney better fire the coach ?

  2. You are spot on in everything you said. I fully agree about the lack of quality coaching and the benching with just one mistake. ND is great example on how to elevate your players, not degrade. It’s time to move on and maybe go with a new staff and not
    continue with the same.

  3. So this is the long, slow slide of Jim Boeheim’s later years, huh?
    Here’s an inconvenient truth.
    This is the norm (and it isn’t new):
    2009 Sweet 16
    2010 Sweet 16 (despite losing Arinze right before tournament, Boeheim won National COY)
    2011 Second Round
    2012 Elite Eight
    2013 Final Four
    2014 Second Round (25-0 start to season)
    2015 Self-imposed ban, and let’s not pretend the record isn’t a reflection of that… they were 15-7 when they announced the ban, 3-6 after the announcement.
    2016 Final Four (this wasn’t a gracious selection, either, but I’ll refrain from debating that here)
    So, he should retire?
    The trend here is excellence. Was this year an off-year? Sure. He’s had talent-loaded teams in the past that haven’t delivered and has bounced back. There are valid criticisms to make (as with any great coach), but to say that the ‘new norm’ is Boeheim’s ‘ineffectiveness’ as a coach is ridiculous. Come with a critique it you want, but ground it in reality.

  4. I think all of those previous runs were terrific indicators of a rejuvenated JB up until 2014. As I said, I think being in the ACC has exposed Boeheim’s late career malaise in terms of coaching. I see a team the last three years that is routinely outcoached b/c it’s now competing in a conference with plenty of excellent coaches. I see this as a three-year trend and yes, I think last year was a gracious selection which allowed them to win 4 games that covered up plenty of blemishes. Thanks for reading. -DA

  5. I don’t think being an assistant coach on the Olympics is any indicator of what type of coaching JB is doing on a daily basis within this program. I’m also not saying you can fire him. You can’t. He moves on when he wants to move on. But watching every game of the ACC tournament from courtside and listening/watching all the league’s coaches, it was painfully obvious how many coaches have surpassed JB in the league and are getting more out of their teams. I believe this is a trend for SU over the last three years. Thanks for reading. -DA

  6. If you really want to blame coaching you missed the most obvious which was not playing Gillon over Howard sooner. After watching the UConn game it was clear that Gillon was the better player regardless of experience with the zone.

  7. Tom and Big D, I’m sorry to say you’ve drank too much Orange Kool Ade. Believe me I’m a huge SU and Jim B fan, but also a realist. The unwarranted sanctions and players leaving early also hurt to be sure. BJ Johnson has shined at La Salle in a competitive A10 environment. I believe the run is done and I don’t see Hopkins as the man. Let’s see how things play out.

  8. Thanks for raising this issue, DA, ii is truly is the “elephant in the room” whenever we SU fans look at JB. He has had a great run for the 40+ years he’s been the HC, but all of us reach a point where the will and energy to be the best ebbs, in spite of all the experience he’s gained in his coaching journey. It is time to go, especially when you read about his latest public sniping of anything he doesn’t like,yet many of us are hesitant to annoint Hopkins as the chosen one to replace a legend. JB needs to receive all the accolades he’s earned for his last season of 2017-18; here’s hoping he really busts his tail to make SU a national force again

  9. I agree with you Greg. JB deserves all the respect he’ll be given if this is his final season coming up. It just feels like it will take someone with more energy, patience and vigor to push SU into the elite of the ACC. Here’s hoping it’s Hop and that SU gets back on top.

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