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The Fans vs. Jim Boeheim: Who’s been right in 2021?

You have to give the 45th year hall-of-fame coach, Jim Boeheim, some credit; he may read and consume everything that is said about him, but he doesn’t really listen. In other words, the media nor the fans can pressure him into coaching his basketball team differently than he thinks is best. Boeheim definitely cares what you think about him, but he’ll never shift his goalposts to appease you. That’s how a coach should be (at least the goalposts part of it).

Syracuse is going to get a first-round bye in the ACC tournament, as it makes an unlikely push at the NCAA tournament. If Boeheim coached how most SU hoops observers wanted him to, this season would look different. For better or worse? Let’s examine where Boeheim was right, and where he was wrong.

1. Kadary Richmond should play over Joe Girard

There was no train louder than the Richmond over Girard train. Girard has turned in multiple clunkers this season. Each Syracuse loss until the Feb. 6 one at Clemson was accompanied by ugly box scores from Girard. Jim Boeheim claimed that Richmond was not in good enough condition to play big minutes, and that the freshman from Brooklyn wasn’t playing as well as people thought. Coach was right for most of the season. In the aforementioned SU losses, Richmond never played well at the same time Girard was struggling offensively. The duos were playing their worst games at the same time, usually against stronger opponents. That is until the NC State game, when Richmond dropped 14 points on six of seven shooting in sixteen minutes while Girard went two for ten with five points despite much more run.

Since then, Richmond has played equal or more minutes than Girard in six of the last eight games. It became literally impossible to not see the difference Richmond was making for Syracuse on both ends. In SU’s signature win of the season over UNC on Monday, Richmond dished out ten assists, becoming the first freshman to do that in regulation since Jonny Flynn in 2007. Richmond owns the 5th highest steal rate in the nation, a top-150 assist rate and a better KenPom offensive rating than Girard. The eye test easily favors Richmond on the defensive end as well. Girard is undoubtedly a better three-point shooter, but that seems to be where his case starts and ends.

Jim Boeheim has come around on playing Richmond more minutes than Girard, so I’d argue the white towel is in. The fans were calling for this move long before the coach pulled the trigger. 

2. Buddy Boeheim should get a shorter leash

The coach’s son leads Syracuse in minutes per game, at 36. Buddy’s playing time has been consistent throughout the season, despite ups and downs in his play. Buddy was plagued with inconsistent three-point shooting for much of December and January. In five of Buddy’s first eleven games, he hit either zero or one three-point shot. His percentage from range dipped below 30 for a portion of the season. Observers questioned why Buddy was being left on the floor despite the cold shooting. Afterall, he’s not really a playmaker, isn’t a standout defender and is limited against taller defenders inside. If he isnt shooting the ball well, he isn’t helping very much. Claims of nepotism, which always get an eye-roll out of me, began to emerge as Buddy’s playtime remained constant.

Jim Boeheim fell back on what Buddy had accomplished last season, leading the ACC in both three-pointers made and percentage (37%). Jim stayed patient with Buddy, and waited for the inevitable. The stroke of old ventured back, in the nick of time, and Buddy saved the season with a 29-point explosion against Notre Dame in the Dome. He’s shooting 43 percent from deep in his last five games. Buddy is both getting better looks and capitalizing at a higher clip. 

Jim Boeheim was absolutely right for riding out his son’s slump. Be wary of small sample sizes when it comes to shooters. Buddy might not look like the best spot-up player in the ACC for stretches of time, but if he’s taken out of the game, he won’t have a chance to catch fire like he did against Notre Dame and UNC in the last couple weeks.

3. Jesse Edwards should play more at Center

Syracuse has gone with Marek Dolezaj at the center position all season, and sometimes for all 40 minutes. The senior is fantastic offensively, but outmatched when it comes to rebounding and interior defense. Jim said it himself: “we have a skinny forward at center.” This is the result of Bourama Sidibe’s injury. Yet, Boeheim has maintained that Jesse Edwards, Jon Bol Ajak and Frank Anselem are not ready to help Syracuse win. The rotation has reflected that.

Meanwhile, Dolezaj hasn’t been able to bother the likes of Moses Wright, Armando Bacot, Jay Huff, or Mark Williams inside. Plus, the Orange are 332nd in defensive rebounding percentage. Was this inevitable? A recruiting problem, perhaps? The case became harder to make when Dolezaj got in foul trouble against Georgia Tech. Edwards entered the game and battled hard inside, finishing with a team-high eight rebounds. Then the same exact thing happened against UNC, the most physical frontcourt in the conference. Edwards still struggles to catch the ball cleanly, off both passes and rebounds, but his size affects the game much more than Dolezaj’s. Every time he’s been rewarded with extended minutes, he has looked the part and held his own. The one caveat is that his foul rate is 7.7 per 40 minutes, something he would have to clean up significantly in order to play more. 

Keep in mind, Edwards has not shown to have the ceiling that Dolezaj has this season. The argument is that Marek could be moved to forward, allowing Edwards to do the dirty work. The reality is, we don’t have enough data to make the call on who was right here. That in itself is kind of a travesty. Edwards played a combined eleven minutes in December. As a result, we did not get a good feel for what Edwards can do in lower-stakes games against weaker competition. That was a gripe last year, and it persists. The fans get the win on this one, since the sample size with Edwards should definitely be larger.

By the way, I’m five-foot-six.

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