Syracuse has easily dispatched another inferior opponent in Bucknell and run its record to 12-0. But can we learn anything with big wins against overmatched teams like the Bison? Absolutely. SU seems a lock to hang on to the #1 ranking for another week or three. The Orange has sent both tough teams and cupcakes home without much drama. But here are the five most important lessons so far of the non-conference season. It’s the first ever hoops Fizz 5.
1. This team is loaded with scoring.
Having depth is one thing. Having a depth of scorers like the Orange is entirely different. Of the games SU has lost in recent years, there’s been the occasional defensive implosion (Seton Hall going bombs away in the Dome last year). But more often it’s from a lack of offense. The few consistent scorers for SU (Kris Joseph, Scoop) have gone cold at times. That’s not a problem this year.
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Specifically, Joseph and Jardine are more consistent this season because they’ve added range and consistency to their jumpers, and are better finishing at the rim. Dion Waiters emergence as an “I can score whenever I want” player has completely changed this team. Any college squad with three solid scorers is set. But SU is just getting started. James Southerland’s scoring bursts are no joke. The guy can shoot and because of his size/length, can get his shot off over almost anyone. Brandon Triche can dominate in stretches, which suddenly is good enough because he’s not relied on to score. CJ Fair’s offensive game has evolved (added range, much improved handle, still makes the little plays). Fab Melo can do damage inside, while every other game Baye Keita does insane work on the offensive glass. And then there’s the two McDonald’s All-Americans. Good luck getting all those guys to go cold on one night.
2. That’s great, but defense wins championships.
Jim Boeheim’s best teams over the last 15 years were the ’03 National Championship team (duh) and the ’10 team derailed by AO’s quad injury. They were not coincidentally also his best defensive teams. They played the zone better than other editions. Longtime SU observers believe there are stretches where this team’s defensive prowess is the best they’ve ever seen. Within the team there was clearly a focus in the off-season to become better individual defenders. The most improved is Waiters, who last year was below average as a defender at best. A close second is the newly aggressive Melo, who can be a game changer in the middle.
It’s also mathematic. The ’10 zone was so good because of its length. The wings were 6’9” Rick Jackson and 6’9” Wes Johnson (who has a 7’4” wingspan) surrounding a 6’11” Arinze Onuaku. The guards were a 6’4” Brandon Triche and a 6’5” Andy Rautins, who knew how to jump passing lanes as well as anyone. A zone defense is designed to have players cover areas. The way to beat it is to find the space in between. With guys who cover that much ground, there isn’t any space. This year’s zone is nearly as big and the pieces are continually coming together. If they stay invested on that end, look out New Orleans.
3. Fab has to adjust defensively.
Right now, Melo challenges every jump shot he can get to, but leaves his feet to do so. It hasn’t bitten him yet, but the book to beat him will soon be shot fake city in the middle of the zone. This would mean: Option A – Foul trouble as guys run into him. Option B – Teammates get in foul trouble as opponents drive past an airborn Fab and they have to help. Option C – Help doesn’t come and there’s open shots. The adjustment is simple – be selective. Challenge what you can, jab at other shooters and make them think about it.
4. Maaaaaaan… we talkin bout practice!
Who’s the best squad Syracuse will play between now and Marquette (1/11)? Correct answer: the second team. The most underrated part of SU’s depth is the intensity of its practices. Last year Scoop was being guarded by Brandon Reese in practice. This year it’s Michael Carter-Williams, who would be a starter on nearly any other top 25 team. SU’s practices are more competitive than nearly any other team in the country, and it’ll pay dividends. The eyes of guys like Jardine light up when you ask him about the intensity of practice.
5. Yeah I’ll say it. The scandal helped on the floor.
The Bernie Fine scandal unquestionably has been a negative for the university. But, from a pure basketball perspective there’s a net positive. It brought a relatively tight team even closer to block out the surrounding chaos. It removed Fine and opened up a spot for Gerry McNamara. Remember, Fine didn’t recruit a single player on the SU roster. Many relationships are built during recruiting, and outside of Fab did any player really have a close relationship with Fine?
More importantly, it slid McNamara into a “real” coach slot. College kids don’t like listening to guys in their 60’s and 70’s. Hall of Famer Boeheim is one thing. The guy’s a legend. But a staff of younger coaches (Hop, Autry, GMac), who can connect with the players more authentically, can only be a positive. There is a “cool” factor to McNamara for many of the younger athletes on this team, especially for guards hanging on his every word.
Simply put, this team is nasty. Nothing is guaranteed, but all the pieces are there for a Final Four run. SU has veteran leadership (specifically at the guard spots), a great defense, and a balanced offensive attack. Is it too early to say “Final Four or bust?” Maybe. But, its not unreasonable either.
Posted: Craig Hoffman