Saturday, August 30, 2014

2013-2014 Historical Context

The 2013-2014 season started better than any Syracuse fan could ever have hoped, winning a school record 25 games and catapulting the Orange to a #1 ranking.  It also crashed and burned at the end of the season, losing six of the last nine games of the year, including a first round exit in the ACC Tournament and a 2nd round exit in the NCAA.

The team did finish with 28 wins, which is an impressive total.  However, they did exceed that total in four of the previous five seasons. Jim Boeheim has put his program at such a high standard, that 28 wins is now below par.

However, the purpose of this article is really to focus on how the players individual career accomplishments ended.

C.J. Fair, as a fourth year senior, reached the loftiest heights.  He did lead the Orange in rebounding the last three seasons.  The last player to lead the team three years in a row was John Wallace.  Jerami Grant was a better rebounder, but he played in two less games and had fewer minutes.  Only Jon Cincebox, Rudy Hackett, Derrick Coleman and John Wallace have accomplished that before.  Though in Fair's case, I think it was more the lack of competition that gave him the title three years.  Fair also lead the Orange in scoring his last two seasons.

Fair finished as SU's 15th all-time leading scorer with 1,660 points, just behind Eric Devendorf.  He was the 16th best rebounder, putting him near Paul Harris and Arinze Onuaku.  Fair was way down the list in assists, at #72. He finished as the 249th most accurate 3 pt shooter, and 29th on the all-time list in terms of 3 point baskets made.  And to round it out, he was 43rd all time in free throw shooting percentage.

Tyler Ennis finished as 49th all time in assists, five less that Rick Jackson and 2 more than Dave Bing (though in Bing's case they only had assists as a statistic his senior year).  Ennis was 44th all time in 3 point shots made, and 19th all time in 3 point shooting percentage.  Ennis was clutch in free throw shooting all season, and finished at 18th all-time at SU.

Jerami Grant finished his career 64th in rebounding and 99th in assists. He was 60th in 3 pt baskets made, and 86th in career free throw percentage (in the ball park of Conrad McRae, Otis Hill and Rakeem Christmas).

Baye Moussa Keita finished at 43rd in rebounding.and a woeful 97th in free throw shooting percentage (putting him in the range of Rony Seikaly and LeRon Ellis).

Saturday, June 28, 2014

2014 NBA Draft for the Orange

Three starting Syracuse basketball players had an opportunity to be drafted in the 2014 NBA draft.  The draft went okay for Tyler Ennis, while both Jerami Grant and C.J. Fair have to be disappointed in the results.
I think Ennis made the right choice financially. His game was stellar for Syracuse at the college level, and I wish we had three more years of him with the Orange.  But I’m not sure his game would have improved significantly enough over the next year or two to make him better than the 18th overall pick, and if he didn’t continue to develop in those years, this ‘potential’ would have decreased as the reality of who and what he was became more clear.  He could have actually dropped by staying around.  There are some strong points to his game, but he needs to improve his shooting, and he needs to prove he can consistently play up tempo if needed.  In 2013-2014 those were unknowns and thus ‘potentials’ he could build upon; but if he did not improve in those areas next year, that would cause him to drop.

Ennis has the guaranteed money for 2014-2015, at about $1.24 million (Forbes article)  for the next two years, and that could go four years if his NBA team wants him that long.  That’s $1.24 million this year, instead of no income, and $4.96 million over four years.  If he stayed around one more season and went 15th in the draft in 2015, he would have made about $1.57 million a year, or $6.28 million over four years.  BUT, by going in the draft his year, he would be an unrestricted free agent in 2018-2019 and free to earn what he could get on the market, instead of making the $1.57 million he would have had going in next year’s draft at the hypothetical #15.  Assuming he is successful, he almost certainly would be making more money in 2018-19 in the first year of a free agent contract, than the $1.57 million.

You can use the math of any of the top picks, and I think realistically Ennis would never go higher than #10.  But when you take the impact of getting the $1.23 million this year guaranteed (which is money he would never be able to make up because his career will now be one year longer) and that his free agency will start one year earlier, it’s the smart move.

Jerami Grant , on the other hand, has to be regretting the move.  Assuming he was in good academic standing, he would have had an opportunity to be the central star on the 2014-2015 Syracuse Orange.  He came into the 2014 NBA draft with a ton of potential, but a lot of areas with need for improvement. He could jump explosively and leap quickly, he blocks well, rebounds well, and has a very long reach.  But he needs to dramatically improve his shooting, ball handling and defense.  The real skills he has in 2014 are not uncommon skills in the NBA; they are unteachable, which is what makes him attractive, but it’s not a unique skill set.

Grant ended up the 39th overall pick.  He is not going to get a guaranteed contract, and he’s going to make less than $800k (possibly around $500k) if he makes the team at all. Philadelphia is a good fit for him because it is in a youth movement, but he left a lot of money on the table. If he does sign with the 76’ers and stays on the team, he will have earn about $2.5 million over his first four years of his NBA contract.   Grant has the athletic ability and potential to have moved into a lottery position in the 2015 draft, and he could have earned that amount of guaranteed money in his first season.    He could've earned $10 million over his first four years in the NBA, instead of $2.5 million, and he would be unlikely to make up that difference in the first year of his free agency.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim thought Grant could have made All-America next season, and I agree with that assessment.  

"As far as what he should do, I think, what I think if he came back, he would have had a good chance to make 1st-team All-American based on what he can do and what we would ask him to do next year," Boeheim said. "I think that would have helped his draft stock quite a bit. But players have to decide what they want."  

C.J. Fair made the right decision to stay another year in college. He was not going to be drafted in the 2013 NBA draft. He got another year under his belt to improve his game, and I hope he finished his degree.  The 2013-2014 season did not elevate Fair to a level where he got drafted.  He struggled to score once he became the primary scoring option for the Orange, and his perimeter shooting decreased as he was now a focus of the opposing defense.  Fair struggled at times to be the ‘go to’ man for Syracuse, and really wasn’t able to carry the team on his back many had hoped.  He was a good player last year, but not NBA draft worthy.  

At least Fair is an undrafted free agent and has the opportunity to try to find the right fit himself. 

Fair is a lesson to what could have happened to Ennis if he had stayed.  Fair did improve his senior year, but the ceiling for his potential also dropped as it became clearer what he could and could not do. 

Good luck to all three former Orange on their future professional endeavors, whether it is in the NBA, another league, or another business venture altogether.  

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Winning the Conference Tournament

The question rises each season as the conference post season tournaments begin:  is the team better off losing the tournament to rest themselves for the NCAA tournament, or is it better to win the tournament and keep the momentum going?

Syracuse does have 34 years of Big East history to draw from.  Five times Syracuse won the Big East Tournament.  The Orange were only 2-4 in the NCAA tournament those years, never advancing beyond the second round.  That seems to be pretty damning evidence.  These were the seasons: 1980-81, 1987-88, 1991-92, 2004-05 and 2005-06.

Some of those losses can be mitigated.  In 1980-81, the Orangemen won the Big East Tournament, and because the conference was only in its second season there was no automatic qualifier. The NCAA ignored the Orangemen, relegating the Orangemen to the NIT, so Syracuse played no NCAA game that year.  However, the Orangemen did do very well in the NIT going 4-1, and losing in overtime to Tulsa in the NIT Finals. That is a very successful post season.

The Orangemen in 1987-88 beat North Carolina A&T in the first round, and then were upset by Rhode Island in the second round when Sherman Douglas struggled with a high fever and cold.

The Orangemen in 1991-1992 beat Princeton in the first round before losing to higher ranked UMass in the second round.

The Orange in 2005-2006 had the embarrassing first round loss to Vermont.

The Orange in 2005-2006 was the year that Gerry McNamara carried the team to a Big East Championship.  The Orange lost to Texas A&M in the first round with an injured GMac struggling to score. However, the Orange would not even have qualified for the NCAA had they not won the Big East Tournament, so it is tough to count the NCAA post season failure against their winning the Big East Title.

Regardless of the reasons, 2-4 in the NCAA following a Big East Title is fairly strong evidence that the Tournament takes a lot out of you.

However, ten times the Orange played in the Big East Championship and lost.  That means an additional 10 times they played just as many games as they would have had they won the tournament, and they had the extra baggage of losing their last game before the NCAA Tournament.  The Orange are 21-9 in the NCAA Tournament when they lost in the Big East Championship.  Never had the Orange lost in the NCAA first round when they reached the Big East Finals and lost.  They lost in the second round twice, in the Sweet Sixteen 4 times, Elite 8 once, the Final Four once (2013) and the NCAA Championship  Game once (1987).  They were banned from NCAA Post season action in 1993, so no wins or losses that year.

And consider the 2008-2009 team that reached the Big East Finals.  That was the year of the epic 6 overtime win over Connecticut, followed by an overtime win against WVU in the semi-finals.  The Orange would lose to Louisville in the finals, but would play the equivalent of 4 7/8 games in four nights. That team would go 2-1 in the NCAA Tournament, losing to higher seeded Oklahoma in the Sweet Sixteen.  Fatigue was not an issue there.

When you combine the two sets, you have fifteen seasons the Orange went to the Big East Championship game (five wins, ten losses).  The Orange were 23-13 in the NCAA Tournament following following playing in the Big East Tournament Championship game, reaching the Final Four Twice.

Compare that to how the Orange have done in the NCAA following Big East Tournaments where they did not reach the Big East Finals (19 times).  The Orange went 27-13 in the NCAA Tournament, reaching the Final Four two more times, including the 2003 National Championship.   Five of those seasons they did not even reach the NCAA; they were regulated to the NIT Tournament.

So we are really comparing going 23-13 versus 27-13, two Final Fours on each side of the ledger.  I don’t see a real difference there, not one to suggest that it’s better to than the conference tournament in favor of the NCAA. 

Given that, let’s go ORANGE!  Let’s do some damage in the ACC Tournament.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Orange and Blue Devils: The Coach Perspective

Not sure what else can be said about the end of last night's Syracuse / Duke game , or the game in general.  Instead, I thought it best to hear it from Jim Boeheim and Mike Kryzyzewski, two of the greatest coaches in college basketball today.

I transcribed portions of both of their post game press conferences from last evening.  Enjoy.

Jim Boeheim:  

I thought we played as well defensively as we played all year long and I thought the game was extremely well officiated, as well as any game we have had all year, and … don’t laugh, I do make jokes but that’s not a joke… I thought it was tremendously well officiated, three great officials.  The first half Michael Gbinije was in the same position, got in front, and the new rule is it’s a block. That is the new rule, it has been explained 100 times.  C.J. [Fair] got into his motion, I saw the replay, and the guy was moving.  That’s it. It’s as simple as that. It’s a new rule. It’s a block… and I wanted to see if I still had it in me to go out there.  I did, I got out there pretty good. I thought I was quick.  I stayed down, and I didn’t get injured, so all those things are good.   But that was the play,that was the game.  That was the game decider right there.  I would have been happy with a no call, let the players make / finish the game and see what happens, but it was a great game.  A tremendously well officiated game.  I just disagree with that last call there. That’s all.

Jeez, I’ve only been thrown out only once in my life and that was an exhibition game. I just thought that was the worst call of the year, that’s all.  I just hated to see the game decided on that call. 

You’re going to lose tight games, it’ s part of the nature of the game.  If you are in tight games … we were down six, we weren’t ahead.  We had a six point deficit and made a great move to get back into the game.

There’s not much difference between great games in this league or that league.  Both teams went at it as hard as they could, you know the whole game.  It was a tremendous basketball game just like the one in Syracuse was.  This was just a different game. But it was a great game… if in the beginning of the year I could’ve split with Mike[Kryzyzewski] I probably would have taken it without any hesitation.  But once we won in Syracuse I might not have… it’s great, two great games… games lived up to everything.   People will remember this one for 30 years ‘cuz the old coach went out there a little bit. Got a little excited.  So, they’ll always remember you for something.  Down here I think those fans will remember Jim Boeheim, down here, after that.

Mike Kryzyzewski:
Another great game.  Different from the first one because it seemed like both teams were scoring easy up at Syracuse and today it was really difficult to score.  I don’t know how either team could play any harder.  What a great environment.  I want to thank our fans, the whole … their celebration of basketball  up there [Syracuse] and our celebration of basketball here [Duke] was phenomenal.  It’s what makes our sport so good.  I mean I love the NBA to death but this is something they can’t do.  And we should always recognize that… the thing at Syracuse and here… that’s our product.  That’s our product. Genuiness, purity,  and my guys to fight like they did today, that’s their fourth game in eight days, coming after one of our worst halves of the season at North Carolina, and they played great there… I’m not knocking them.  They made us look bad.  

But to come back and play with this level of intensity was spectacular.  Just absolutely spectacular.  Our defense was really good; their defense adjusted.  What they did in their zone when we flashed , they stayed with shooters, and so up there when we flashed they collapsed a little bit and you  could kick out and you have a shot. They stayed with shooters today, and so that’s why we , what turned out to be a good move, putting Rodney [Hood] there, and what that did was then he could run offense in there a little bit, not great, but better, and Rodney, that part of the game was amazing.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

24-0, 24 hours later

As the Orange faithful and most NCAA basketball fans are aware, the Orange are now 24-0 after beating Pitt 58-56 on Tyler Ennis' 35 foot buzzer beater last night.  Simply amazing... but as this season has gone, we cannot say it is unexpected.  We have seen the Orange comeback and pull out victory after victory in close games this year.

I had circled the Pitt game on the calendar as where I thought our winning streak would end.  Pitt is incredibly tough to play at home, even if they had struggled recently.  Pitt has been extremely tough against the Orange under Jamie Dixon, with the Orange only 5-10 against him going into last night.  The odds makers had #1 Syracuse, at 23-0, as the slight underdog to #25 ranked Pitt.  That says a lot about how tough it is to win at Pitt.

But once again, the Orange played shutdown defense during the crunch time, and they made all the baskets they needed to make.  Tyler Ennis is superman down the stretch, something I discussed in detail a couple of weeks ago.  He just ramped up his game a few more notches to show us he could do a little bit more.  Now Ennis has joined the club of players like Jimmy Lee, Gerry McNamara, John Wallace, and Pearl Washington, with a buzzer beating shot.

Ennis made this 35 footer to win the game. He of course added 2 made free throws in the previous possession to tie the game up, before Pitt once again took the lead.  Ennis' stature in close games is becoming mythical, as the ESPN graphic from below shows.
Ennis has one blemish during these minutes of play, a simple missed field. Overall he is 8 of 9 from the floor, including one three point basket (from 35 feet nevertheless!), and 14 of 14 from the free throw line. He is flawless as the floor general with six assists and no turnovers.

It was not all Ennis last night.  Syracuse was down by 6 points with less than two minutes to play in the game.  C.J. Fair made a clutch three point shot to make it a three point game, and a short time later may a two point shot to bring the game within one.  The last play of the game was actually designed to go to Fair. Pitt had defensively prepared for that, and so the second choice was Ennis, and he came through.

I have seen my fair share of memorable Syracuse games over the years and several fantastic finishes. I have no idea where to rank this one, but it will remain in that discussion for one of the best.  If you put it into context, extending the unblemished season to 24-0, and extending the school record for consecutive wins, and doing it on a hostile court, that makes it quite impressive.  Some of the other memorable finishes include Big East tournament and NCAA tournament games, and some are games I attended in  person, so I may not place this game ahead of those.  But it was a wonderful night.

Jim Boeheim and Syracuse have now beaten Pitt three straight times, and four of the past five meetings.  You have got to wonder when the Syracuse/Pitt game might kick itself up a notch and become a real rivalry. I know many Syracuse fans, myself included, do not quite get that same vibe with Pitt as we do with UConn or Georgetown, or with Villanova or St. John's.  I think part of that is that Syracuse and Pitt only met 5 times in the Big East tournament in 33 years of Big East Conference play.  

But consider that Syracuse and Pitt have now met 104 times, the fourth most games in a Syracuse basketball rivalry.  Geographically, Pitt and Boston College are the closest physical opponents in ACC play.  The games are almost always meaningful; they were the two winningest programs in the Big East the past 10 years.  Pitt has played 8 games at the Dome in front of 30,000+ fans; only Georgetown has done it more.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

We Are #1

The Syracuse Orange are now the unanimous #1 ranked team in college basketball, following the weekend where they beat Duke in a thrilling overtime game, and former #1 Arizona lost to California.  Many fans, and particularly the media, will say this is meaningless.

I disagree.

College basketball, for me, has always been about the journey.  It is about the thrill and excitement of each game.  It is about how the team grows and develops, and how specific players grow into their roles.  It is about the ebb and flow of the season.

The #1 ranking is something to be proud of.  It is an accomplishment; it is not the ultimate accomplishment, but it is nevertheless a goal to achieve.  The players and coaches work hard for every game, and the #1 ranking gives them, and the fans, a good benchmark for what they have achieved so far.

The post season is important, and it is what you build the season towards.  However, I am not a believer that it is National Championship or bust.  For me, it is about being the best that you can be.  I am not disappointed about an overachieving team losing a game and ending their season; I am disappointed about a team that I had high expectations for bowing out very early in the postseason.

I hold a high importance on winning conference regular season championships.  I think it is great to be the best team over a prolonged period of time. I also enjoy it when the team wins the conference tournament.  A good run with exciting play in the NCAA tournament is a lot of fun. 

I was not disappointed with the 1986-1987 team that lost to Indiana on the Keith Smart shot.  That team shook off a lot of demons for the program, allowing the team to advance far into the tournament.  Making it to the championship was surreal; the fact they came within a shot of winning it all was unbelievable.  It was heartbreaking when they lost, and it wasn’t until the 2003 championship that the heartbreak was totally gone. But I have never considered the 1986-1987 season disappointing.

The same with the 1995-1996 season.  That was a proud moment, not a disappointment.

The game is about the moments.  The 2003 National Championship was a great feeling, and a fantastic moment, particularly the Hakim Warrick block.  It was a culmination of 24 years of being a Syracuse fan, and having it all pay off with a win. Very tough to explain that feeling, but a wonderful one.

It is not my only great memory from Syracuse basketball.  Syracuse beating North Carolina in the Elite Eight in 1987 is very high on my list.  Other NCAA memorable games include Syracuse beating Georgia in the 1996 NCAA tournament, and Syracuse beating Texas in the 2003 Final Four.

I have memories from games I attended in person.  The Syracuse – Georgetown game in 1990 when the Orangemen overcome a large deficit to beat the Hoyas in overtime in front of a then record crowd at the Dome remains a top memory for me.  Pearl Washington hitting the half-court shot to beat Boston College in 1984.  Gene Waldron bombing Iona with 40 points in the Carrier Classic in 1983.  Sherman Douglass setting the all-time assist record and SU scoring record in 1989 versus UConn.

Big games such as the Duke / Syracuse game last weekend are what it is all about. That game was fantastic, and it will remain fantastic, regardless of how the season plays out.

The Big East tournament has brought many great memories. Far too many to mention them all.  Pearl Washington versus Patrick Ewing and the Hoyas in the early 80s.  Gerry McNamara carrying the Orange on his back his senior season with perhaps the greatest single MVP performance in Big East history. 
The greatest moment for me is the Syracuse / UConn six overtime game in 2009 is at the top.  That game wasn’t for a National Championship, and it wasn’t even for the Big East Championship. The game was just a quarter final game in the tournament.  Yet it was everything I love about college basketball, with two teams playing their heart out, tremendous skill being shown.

Regardless how the 2013-2014 season ends, it will likely end as a great memory to me.  They have overachieved in so many ways right now. It is rightful to hope for a National Championship, because this team can win one.  However, I don’t think it would be a great disappointment to me if they do not win it.  It will be a disappointment to me if they don’t play well in the NCAA tournament, but if they lose to a team that outplayed them , so be it. 

Right now the Orange are ranked #1, and that is something I am enjoying.  That enjoyment does not disappear because next game, or next week, or next month, they lose a game.  Today's moment is today's moment, and that is what is important. I will worry about tomorrow's moment when it presents itself.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

The Orange Beat Duke

The Orange are at 21-0, uncharted waters for the Syracuse basketball squad. They should also move up to #1 in the nation come Monday night, following #1 Arizona’s loss to California on Saturday night. 

The Syracuse / Duke game at the Dome on Saturday night was college basketball at its finest. Two well coached teams playing in front of an extremely hyped NCAA record crowd, in a tight well-played game. The two winningest coaches in men’s Division I history, with teams with collegiate All Americans, McDonald’s All-Americans, and highly touted freshman. Both teams committed only eight turnovers each in the game, and only a combined two in the second half. There was well executed offense and well executed defense. Add in a dash of the game being the first game between Syracuse and Duke in ACC conference play, and throw in a dramatic three point basket to send the game into overtime, and you have a great game. 

Both teams played very well. Here’s some of the numbers for Duke: 15 of 36 from three point range (41%); 18 offensive rebounds; 20 assists and only 8 turnovers; 89 total points; the opponent was held to only 3 three point field goals. If you told Mike Krzyzewski his Blue Devils would post those numbers, I am sure he would have felt his team won the game. And Syracuse Jim Boeheim would have been concerned about those numbers. 

Syracuse, however, had some impressive numbers of its own. The Orange shot 57% from the floor, had only 8 turnovers, a +5 rebound margin, only 8 turnovers, 9 blocked shots, and an impressive 26 – 32 from the free throw line. Those types of numbers will win most games. It was an interesting game. Krzyzewski’s game plan seemed to recognize that the Blue Devils would not be able to beat the Orange on the inside, and he was committed to working the three point offense. Duke ran that offense well, though it was surprising they did not challenge the Orange more inside. Then again, when you successful from the perimeter, and unsuccessful inside, it is alluring to keep going outside. I think Amile Jefferson was outstanding at cleaning up Duke’s perimeter misses, especially in the first half. Duke did struggle inside when it did try to run its offense there. A tip of the hat to the Orange who were smothering inside on their defense. Whenever Duke thought they had an open opportunity, the Orange (primarily Rakeem Christmas) were there to block or alter the shot. 

Defensively, Duke had problems all day with the Orange inside. Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson both picked up 4 fouls costing them valuable playing time in the second half, and both ultimately fouled out. And when Jefferson or Parker were not on the court, C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant had a field day. Krzyzewski was stuck in a hard place; Jabari Parker likely faced the toughest front court he’s seen, and struggled with it. In three weeks, the rematch should be interesting, as both teams do have areas they can improve upon, and they have adjustments they can make. 

The Orange are playing at a very high level right now. The win against Duke was a combination of all five starters playing well, and the bench contributing enough to let most the starters get some rest. C.J. Fair had a career high 28 points, and proved he was worthy of Naismith consideration. When the Orange needed him to score, he scored. He recognized and took advantage of the defensive mismatches when he saw them. A brilliant game. 

Jerami Grant just continued to keep his stock rising. He had an outstanding day on the boards, with a total of 12 rebounds, and Duke was hard pressed to stop the long limbed explosive leaper. They fouled him several times, and Grant made them pay for every single foul by making 10 out of 10 free throw attempts. I was concerned when he picked up his third foul early in the second half, but he played smart and did not pick up another. 

Rakeem Christmas was a difference maker in the game. He showed up and was aggressive on both ends of the court. Defensively he shut down the Blue Devils with 6 blocked shots and two steals. On the offensive end of the court he made 2 out of 4 shots, and had four offensive rebounds. Baye Keita and Christmas, the two headed monster, had 9 points, 6 blocked shots and 16 rebounds in 45 minutes of play. That type of contribution from our center position will go a long way in winning games. 

Trevor Cooney was shadowed all night and had a tough time getting open for three point attempts. No problem for Cooney as he mixed up his game and drove the lane for layups, and pulled up for mid range jumpers. Twice in the game he had a chance for a three and twice he nailed it. Cooney also is displaying more confidence with his ball handling and provided Ennis relief on the full court presses from Duke. 

Tyler Ennis played like Ennis does every game. Flawlessly running the offense with 9 assists and only 2 turnovers. He threw Duke for a loop when he decided to score himself, rather than work the ball, and I am sure that helped to loosen the defense up on the inside for the rest of the game. 

Michael Gbinije had 12 minutes of solid basketball where he provided some good defense and three assists. Tyler Roberson had five minutes of time in the first half where he presented himself well. He had a nice drive along the baseline which drew the defense to him, and finished off a fast break with an impressive dunk.

You know it was a great game when Jim Boeheim flashed a big smile after Duke's Rasheed Sulaimon drained the 3 point shot as time expired, sending the game into overtime.  It was an epic game and Boeheim realized it. He had coached 1,255 games at Syracuse, and he knew this one was a special one.