ACC Basketball

NCAA Tournament Preview: Syracuse Orange

Photo by Dennis Nett / The Post-Standard

HOW THEY GOT HERE:
While no one would confuse Syracuse’s non-conference schedule with murderer’s row, using the effective Jim Boeheim 2-3 zone, the Orange shut down every opponent they faced, never letting anyone even challenge them early in the season. They picked up two signature wins, one over Baylor on a neutral court and then a week later at home against Villanova.

In conference play, the wins kept coming, despite the fact Syracuse would lose key reserve DaJuan Coleman for the year. By late January, the undefeated Orange were ranked #1 in the country. On February 1, Duke came to town in what was arguable the game of the year. Shaking off a late Rasheed Sulaimon three that tied it in regulation, Syracuse managed to pull out a two-point victory in overtime after a controversial no call on Rakeem Christmas’ block of Rodney Hood.

A week and a half later, they needed a last-second half court heave by Tyler Ennis to beat Pittsburgh on the road and then against N.C. State, after a surprising decision by the referee to not award a basket to Cat Barber after a foul call that would have given the Wolfpack a three-point lead and a FT attempt, the Orange somehow stole the inbound pass and won the game on a C.J. Fair basket in transition with seconds to go.

At 25-0, it looked like lady luck was squarely on Syracuse’s side, pulling out three miracles in five games. However, lady luck can be a cruel bitch and on February 19, the Orange were shocked at home by a 7-19 Boston College team. The following game, the Blue Devils got a little payback winning a home game on their own controversial call.

All and all, Syracuse would dropped five of their last seven games, including a quarterfinals upset to N.C. State in the ACC tournament. In less than a month, the Orange went from being the overall number one team to barely earning a three-seed.

PROJECTED STARTING LINE:
Tyler Ennis, 6-2 180 Fr
Trevor Cooney, 6-4 195 So
C.J. Fair, 6-8 215 Sr
Jerami Grant, 6-8 210 So
Rakeem Christmas, 6-9 250 Jr

KEY RESERVES:
Michael Gbinije, 6-7 200 So
Tyler Roberson, 6-8 212 Fr

Heading into the season there were plenty of questions for Jim Boeheim. Could C.J. Fair be an alpha dog? Was there enough depth if someone got hurt? Could anyone hit from deep? Could a freshmen really be the only ball handler on this team? Will this rash ever go away?

Okay, that last one was for me, but we all know by now that the point guard concerns were answered. Tyler Ennis proved to be arguable the conference’s best point guard, consistently playing with poise, never getting rattled, leading this team from day one. Not bad for a Canadian. Playing 36 minutes a game, he is the most efficient offensive player on the court, scoring 12.7 points per game, dishing out 5.6 assist per game. However, what makes him special is he rarely turns it over (giving it up just 1.7 times per game).

On the wing, C.J. Fair leads the team in scoring at 16.7 per game. He’s had no trouble being “the man,” often creating his own shot while almost always facing an opponent’s best defender. Inside, Rakeem Christmas doesn’t provide much of a scoring bunch, but he’s disruptive around the rim and has made a handful of game winning plays that did not involve scoring (just ask Duke and N.C. State).

However, the most important piece of the puzzle is Jerami Grant. The Syracuse center is not afraid to protect the glass (6.9 rebounds per game), but more importantly, he’s the only true scoring option in the paint. Remove him and the Orange are in trouble. With no DeJuan Coleman in there (out for the year after just 13 games), they are not just paper thin inside (Jim Boeheim only likes to use senior Baye Keita as a sub inside), they don’t have depth anywhere. The only other player that comes off the bench and has an impact is Duke transfer Michael Gbinije.

Playing just seven-deep, many are blaming tired legs as the main reason that Syracuse is losing. While I sort of hate that excuse when it’s used, this time it might have merit. Guards Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney have been struggling to hit shots. Since facing Clemson on Feb 9, Ennis is hitting 43% of his shots from the floor, 35% from three. Those numbers are MVP-worthy compared to Cooney, who has hit just 27 of his last 97 three-point attempts. He’s shooting 28% from the floor and 25% from three. Ouch. Gbinije has gotten more playing time lately and has tried to fill that scoring void, but he’s hit just three of his last 17 three-point attempts.

POTENTIAL TOURNAMENT MATCH UPS:

The NCAA committee decided to have some fun and has 3-seeded Syracuse facing Western Michigan. The Broncos won the Mid American Conference and are coached by former Orange assistant, Rob Murphy. You’ll never guess what defense he uses? Yep, if you’ve always dreamed of watching a game where two foes play the 2-3 zone the entire game, then you have your game.

If Syracuse advances, which I expect they will, they will probably face Ohio State, another team that has struggled to hit shots this season. If these two match up, it could be a ‘first one to 50 wins’ type game. However, don’t sleep on Dayton. The Flyers can score (30th Adj. efficiency according to Ken Pom) and they have signature wins over Gonzaga, George Washington, UMass and Saint Louis.

Still, I expect the Orange to escape the first weekend, which means they will most likely face a Kansas team that will have Joel Embiid. Syracuse would certainly be the underdog in that contest, but it’s always fun to see what could a zone can do to a young team. If they move on, the Orange will get to face Florida (I just don’t see anyone upsetting them on their side of the bracket). The Gators can score, play defense, yadda, yadda, yadda…hard to see Syracuse beating the Gators.

OUTLOOK: 

WHY THEY’LL FALL SHORT OF THE FINAL FOUR
Syracuse can’t score. It’s that simple. They’ve scored 70 points just four times since the start of conference play. Seven times they couldn’t even break 60. None of their guards can hit a deep ball and it’s not like their legs are going to suddenly come back. Inside, all it will take is one whistle happy referee for the Orange’s depth problem to become apparent.

WHY THEY’LL ADVANCE TO THE FINAL FOUR
Shooting is overrated…when you do other things well. If you are a team that misses a lot of shots, then you need to be a team that shoots a lot more shots than your opponents. For instance, the Orange almost never turn it over (11th best in the nation in Turnover %), while they are one of the best at forcing turnovers (16th best in turnover %). They are also one of the better rebounding teams (13th according to Ken Pom) and they do a good job not fouling and giving free points to the opponents. Overall, they are 18th in defensive Adj. Efficiency, fifth in steal % and 4th in block % and the last time I checked, defense wins championships. 

MY WORTHLESS PREDICTION:
Since the first weekend is being played in Buffalo, right around the corner from Syracuse, there is no way the Orange won’t move on to the second weekend. However, the Jayhawks should have Emiid back and there is just too much talent for the Orange to match up with.

 

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