After yesterday’s defeat against Wake Forest, Syracuse men’s basketball is officially halfway through its regular season. The team has played 15 games with 15 remaining, and enough time has passed to reflect on what we’ve learned about this group through the first 50% of its schedule. We’ve narrowed it down to five things we’ve learned about this team – if you haven’t by now.
1. “Buddy Buckets” is alive and well, but that may not be enough
Right off the rip, it should be said that this SU team is an above-average group when it comes to scoring, and Buddy Boeheim is as big a part of that as any. ‘Cuse is fourth-best in the ACC in scoring, and Boeheim is on pace to set new career highs in points per game (currently 18.6), rebounds per game (3.7), and assists (3.7). He and older brother Jimmy have carried a lot of the offensive load for ‘Cuse so far, but a closer look at Buddy’s stats reveals that he hasn’t been able to do it all himself.
Boeheim is putting up career highs in points despite shooting fewer shots from three-point range this year, and his shooting percentages (39.7% on field goals, 31.8% from deep) have plummeted compared to last year. There’s two likely culprits for this. The first is that Boeheim is functioning within an offense that is now centered around him, and he’s simply shooting more frequently. More volume makes it hard to be a high-percentage sniper. The other is a little more intangible, but Boeheim’s 37.5 minutes per game is the most on the team and may indicate a player who is simply getting tired at the end of games. When that happens, any player is going to struggle to knock down shots. Only one other player in the ACC – NC State’s Dereon Seabron – has played more minutes than Boeheim this season, and Seabron has an extra game under his belt.
2. Defense is this team’s Achilles heel…
Any SU fan who has paid even moderate attention to the team knows this year’s squad is defensively challenged. The Orange have assembled a group that’s thin on depth, long on shooters, and frequently unable to match up against more athletic and larger presences on the court. It can even be argued that without Bourama Sidibe, SU doesn’t even have a true backup center. 6’10”, 215-pound Frank Anselem is built more like a small forward and plays like it, and 6’10” 216-pound John Bol Ajak simply isn’t good enough yet to see time in meaningful situations.
These issues have catapulted SU’s defense into the statistical cellar and vaulted the team into crisis mode. Head coach Jim Boeheim has pulled out a variety of crafty veteran moves like a 1-1-3 changeup alignment, surprise Sidibe appearances, and putting Jimmy Boeheim at center for periods of time. None of it has worked. The Orange are 327th in Division I in scoring defense and well on their way to the program’s worst defensive season since the 1988-89 team. The bad news? That 80s team had Sherman Douglas and six future NBA players. Unfortunately, none of those guys are currently en route to the Salt City to save this year’s squad.
3. …but Jesse Edwards has proved himself
However, the one bright spot on defense has been center Jesse Edwards, who has slowly progressed from a raw, fringe player his freshman year into a surprisingly effective starter in 2021-22. It took another unfortunate preseason injury to Sidibe to thrust Edwards into a starting gig at the five, but the Dutchman has performed. The junior is putting up 11.8 points and 2.9 blocks per game (the latter figure leads the ACC) including a 22-point, seven-block showing against Miami on January 5th. We theorized before the season that Edwards could play a bigger role after a strong 2021 NCAA tournament showing, and those predictions have come to fruition.
On the flipside, Edwards still has areas of his game he needs to shore up. He still has trouble boxing stronger shooters out, and fouls have been a massive issue. At the time of this writing, Edwards has fouled himself out of four consecutive games and eight times total this year. In yesterday’s loss to Wake Forest that dropped the Orange to 7-8, Edwards fouled out with nine minutes remaining and was badly missed at a critical time. SU is now 3-5 this season in games Edwards has fouled out of.
4. The transfer portal wasn’t too kind after all
In early April 2021, the NCAA ratified a new change to transfer portal rules that tossed out the requirement that forced transferred players to sit out a year. The change was arguably a product of the convergence of a surge of support for players’ rights and the pandemic’s impact on sports, and it has had the wide-ranging impacts it was expected to. No matter what collegiate team you support, the rule has been a double-edged sword. Go figure that Syracuse managed to gash itself with both sides of the sword and so far hasn’t produced a plan to stop the bleeding.
Last spring, SU fans had barely blinked following ‘Cuse’s tournament flameout against Houston when multiple players on the team abruptly transferred. In a flash, former contributors Kadary Richmond (Seton Hall), Quincy Guerrier (Oregon), Robert Braswell (Charlotte), and Woody Newton (Oklahoma State) all slipped out the back door to greener pastures. The transfers Syracuse roped in to replace their departed quartet have debuted to mixed reviews, to be kind.
Guerrier is the only former starter out of that group, and he’s the one who’s most sorely missed. The 6’7” 220-pound forward would have provided a strong, athletic presence this year that the current squad doesn’t possess. These days, he’s a rebound machine at Oregon and has started every game for the Ducks this year. If that isn’t enough pain, Kadary Richmond is now a fairly regular starter at Seton Hall with improved shooting percentages across the board and has a 27-point game under his belt. Braswell and Newton aren’t playing nearly as much at their respective schools, but the depth they provided SU could’ve been a life preserver this year.
Instead, the guys Syracuse brought in to fill the various vacated roles (Jimmy Boeheim, Cole Swider, Symir Torrence, and Benny Williams) have all struggled in their own ways. Boeheim has been solid, but his 55.3% free throw rate is an obvious weak spot. Swider was brought in as a long-range sniper with a Villanova pedigree, but he’s not even in the top 30 in the ACC in three-point percentage and has gone through problems with turnovers and fouls. Torrence is a good passer who has struggled to do much else, and Williams is a true freshman who has labored to put up as many turnovers as field goals made (15) in 207 scattered minutes. Compare the new four to the transferred four, and it sure seems (at this point) like a net loss.
5. Competition and turnover has caught up with the program
Finally, the quiet part that deserves to be said out loud is that Syracuse might finally be on a difficult come-down from the highs of perennial success. In season number 46, Jim Boeheim may be on his way to his first-ever losing season. There’s only so much more he can do about it at this point. After years of being bludgeoned with doubt and criticism, SU feels like a team that’s finally running out of gas the way people thought they would years ago.
Weakening recruiting classes and bad talent retention are primarily to blame. Since joining the ACC in 2013-14, SU has had a tougher time recruiting, and it’s finally showing as the problem worsens. The team’s first true ACC class was in 2014 and was 38th nationally, but ranked 8th in-conference and featured just one player (Chris McCullough) who tore his ACL after 16 games and then left for the NBA. Since 2015, the Orange haven’t had a recruiting class rank better than 7th in the ACC, and the 2021 class that signed just one player (Benny Williams) ranked 11th in-conference. Meanwhile, SU has continued to barely miss on high-profile players, from Darius Bazley to Dior Johnson to Kamari Lands. With every whiff, it’s getting harder and harder to convince recruits to come aboard a program with a foundation that feels increasingly weak. Couple that with major issues getting its better recruits like Brycen Goodine, Jalen Carey, and Kadary Richmond to stick around and develop, and Syracuse now feels like a program with a tangibly low ceiling. In the age of quick-trigger decommitments and transfers, that’s a death sentence.
We plan to go more into detail on the state of the program on Tuesday, but it’s clear that no team is built to last forever. SU might be learning that inevitably hard truth this season, but don’t be fooled into thinking the decline occurred overnight.