As the season has progressed a few flaws have emerged for Syracuse basketball.
At the beginning of the season, it was an over-reliance on the three-ball to win games. That seemingly has been fixed with terrible shooting performances transforming into wins against Pitt (5-21) and Virginia Tech (6-24).
The more the season has gone on, the issue of SU’s inability to match up with any skilled big on the interior has reared its ugly head. In fact, it’s become so frequent that it seems to be the most common topic of discussion during any Jim Boeheim post-game press conference.
Both of those issues were readily apparent in Saturday’s loss to No. 9 Duke inside the Dome with SU shooting just 6-26 from beyond the arc and allowing Blue Devils freshman Vernon Carey to feast for 26 points and a career-high 17 rebounds.
Those are both extremely frustrating numbers to take in but it still doesn’t give you the entire scope of the issue SU is facing as it attempts to make a run at the NCAA Tournament. In addition to a lack of quality shooting performances and struggles in the defensive paint, and perhaps above these issues, stands Syracuse’s lack of the clutch gene and lack of a takeover-type guy.
I know what you’re saying, “What are you talking about Syracuse won three close games on the road against Virginia, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech. They couldn’t have won those games without the clutch gene.”
I’ll give you this, the Virginia win is probably the closest SU has come to showing off any semblance of a clutch gene or late-game takeover scorer with Buddy Boeheim scoring 9 of his 14 points in the overtime period and the Orange fighting back from a four-point deficit to force OT.
Outside of that game, though, all three of Syracuse’s other close wins (Virginia Tech on the road, Notre Dame on the road and Pitt at home) have not been the result of any kind of clutch performance or one guy willing the team to victory in the closing minutes.
Instead, in all three of those games, the Orange built up a big-time lead (13 vs Virginia Tech, 13 vs Notre Dame, 20 against Pitt) behind dominant first-half performances from one of the two-headed monster (Buddy’s 18 vs VT, Elijah’s 15 vs ND, Buddy’s 18 vs Pitt) before having to hang on for dear life in the second half hoping upon hope that they wouldn’t blow a massive lead in the waning moments.
If the team truly had the clutch gene those hang-on or a late-game takeover scorer, those hang-on moments wouldn’t have to happen. Those scorers that dominated in the first-half wouldn’t disappear in the second (Buddy scored just 8 second-half points against VT and just 3 against Pitt).
The problem becomes even more apparent when you take a look at some of the close games that SU has lost this season, especially lately. In last week’s loss to Clemson, the Orange held a seven-point lead with just under 14 minutes remaining.
The Tigers wound up outscoring Syracuse 28-20 the rest of the night to eek out a one-point win. They had their clutch performer (Tevin Mack scored a career-high 32) while Syracuse blew a late lead and got just six points from the combination of Hughes and Buddy in the game’s final 13 minutes. Keep in mind, the pair scored a combined 38 in the first 27 minutes.
Then, you take a look at the Duke game. You knew that going against a top 10 team in the country you were going to have to bring your A-game and never take your foot off the gas pedal. Somebody was going to have to step up, take over the game, and deliver in the final minutes if SU wanted to pull the upset. Instead, that never happened.
Duke got its clutch performances from Carey and PG Tre Jones (10-10 FT in the second half) while SU’s big three (Hughes, Boeheim, Girard) never quite found the extra gear and shot just 7-20 from the floor in the second half with 14 of their 32 combined points coming from garbage time free throws.
Not once did we see anybody on the team take over the game in the second half (Marek Dolezaj was the closest with a career-high 22 points) and will the team to victory like the moment called for.
In past years, that duty was fulfilled by Tyus Battle who may go down as one of the more clutch Syracuse players in recent memory. Battle provided countless great moments in his Syracuse career but perhaps none were more memorable than his game-winning shot against Georgetown in 2019, his clutch overtime play in a win over the Hoyas the year prior and his buzzer-beating triple to knock off Clemson as a freshman.
Those are just three shots from Battle (off the top of the head I might add), let alone countless more dominant closing-time stretches that willed the team to victory time and time again. Nobody on the current roster has a single one of those moments.
JG3 has come close with the triple in the waning moments against Notre Dame in the Dome that may or may not have warranted a foul and a chance to tie the game and a couple of big shots down the stretch against Clemson and Duke, but nothing that shows off the killer mentality needed to win close games in the ACC.
Building up big leads in the first-half behind Boeheim and Hughes is all well and good, but the true mettle of a team is shown in how they respond to adversity in the closing moments of a game. Do you have the guy(s) that can will the game in your direction and take over in the final, game-deciding moments? Right now, it doesn’t seem like Syracuse does and that’s got to change if they want a chance at dancing.