Almost a week has passed since Syracuse men’s basketball was in action. For better or worse, the Orange (8-5, 1-1 ACC) get time to rest before squaring up with Boston College on New Year’s Eve. Whether you believe time off will defrost SU or cost it momentum, there’s no question ‘Cuse has some things to iron out following its defeat last Wednesday against Pitt. That’s putting things lightly – if Syracuse doesn’t make some changes and figure some things out, it’ll spend the 20th anniversary of its National Championship limping to its worst finish in generations.
Right now, Syracuse is rated 88th by KenPom (out of 363 Division I teams), 10th in the ACC, and below-average in both offense and defense. Most worryingly, the Orange have sputtered against the nation’s 223rd-hardest schedule and now sport a resumé that includes losses to a surprisingly mediocre Colgate team and a Bryant outfit that has since lost to Brown and Liberty. If that slate of problems doesn’t convince you that a roll of the dice is necessary, nothing will.
Even as Judah Mintz’s last-second shot clanged off the backboard in SU’s 84-82 loss to Pittsburgh last week, there were immediate takeaways concerning SU’s lineup. The Fizz’s postgame coverage took an initial look at the topic, but it’s worth taking a more in-depth look at what may save the Orange, at least in the short-term: the elevation of freshmen Quadir Copeland and Maliq Brown to an increased and starting role, respectively.
Whether it was a preemptive effort to play youth in a blowout or a calculated gamble, Jim Boeheim gave plenty of leash to young players against the Panthers. Copeland and Brown made the most of their opportunities, set career highs in minutes, and nearly helped SU pull off a 20-point comeback. It’s hard to diagnose that as a mere coincidence.
Early in the season, Boeheim said he was “not sure” what the team would do and that “we’ll see” when asked about potential lineup changes. To this point, he’s trotted out the same five in all 13 of Syracuse’s games. Much like his resistance to playing then-freshman Kadary Richmond over Joe Girard two years ago, Boeheim appears reticent toward shaking up his starting lineup no matter how harshly he criticizes his players, and famously hates backseat suggestions of the sort.
With that in mind, it remains surprising that freshman Chris Bell continues to start at small forward. Boeheim has spent the year (rightly) griping about Bell’s lack of rebounding; he did so after Lehigh, Colgate, Richmond, St. John’s, and again after Pitt. Still, Bell simply refuses to get involved. The California native is one of just three players (out of 214) in the ACC with fewer than 2.0 rebounds per game and 200-plus minutes played so far. Only four other players in the conference have played 13 or more games and averaged fewer rebounds per game than Bell does (1.4). Bell’s shooting acumen hasn’t nearly been enough to offset his ghostly presence at the boards, and he has routinely been yanked out of games for long stretches as a result.
Against Pitt, Bell whiffed on four three-pointers and grabbed just one rebound in 13 minutes before Boeheim pulled the plug. In his stead, Copeland entered to register career highs across the board. The Philadelphia native showcased an infectious energy and motor that helped him snag five rebounds in just 13 minutes. Copeland’s play may not be enough to immediately inject him into the lineup as a starter – particularly out of position at forward as he manned against Pitt – but it’s noteworthy that Boeheim had something clear to say about his freshmen afterward.
“Our best lineup was three freshmen [Brown, Copeland, and Mintz], Joe and Jesse.” (Jim Boeheim postgame 12/21/22)
In the same game, forward Maliq Brown showcased his established skillset in a relief role. His calmness, rebounding ability, and willingness to mix it up in the paint provided strengths in areas where current forward Benny Williams lacks. The latter talent out of IMG has struggled with inconsistency this year and too often has the wilting body language to show for it. Williams notched zero rebounds in 13 minutes against Pitt before Brown entered to play 27 minutes, haul down nine rebounds, and add six points. In his last four games, Brown is 16-22 from the field and has averaged nearly seven rebounds per contest.
It might be recency bias, but Copeland and Brown’s performances warrant more playing time at minimum. SU’s play in-conference will make or break its thin tournament aspirations, and we’ve seen what its current starting lineup can and cannot do in a non-con slate. Boeheim isn’t usually aggressive with his lineups, but now is the time to make a change. The Orange may be a different team in a month’s time if SU’s decision-makers take the leap.