Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Last Blown Lead of the Year, Thankfully

Another Syracuse basketball season has come to a close. Though this one did not turn out as well as fans had expected, it was definitely a season with a lot of stories. In the next few days I will promise to recap the season milestones and other accomplishments. Today, however, I would like to vent about the Syracuse / UMass game last evening.

Syracuse pulled out to a big lead in the first half, despite being scoreless for the first 3 ½ minutes of the game. With the 17 point half time lead, I had a strong feeling the Orange were not going to hold that lead, and sure enough they did not. This despite the fact they extended the lead out to 22 points in the second half.

The announcers kept harping on how the fatigue was affecting Syracuse. And it is true the Orange were tired. I could see Arinze Onuaku struggling up and down the court, laboring to get off the floor after each time he fell. Donte’ Greene was tired, Paul Harris was leaning over, most of the Orange were tired. As a result, they stopped playing defense, and the Minutemen were able to easily penetrate in interior for easy baskets or kick it out for uncontested three point shots. If you were casually paying attention, as Sean McDonough and Fran Fraschilla must have been, it would have seemed obvious to you that Syracuse was fatigued because they went only 7 players deep while UMass went 10 deep.

I say hogwash to that. And I’ll give you three reasons.

First, Syracuse has been playing with 7 players since December. The seven players on the court are used to this amount of minutes in a game. In fact, for many of those games Scoop Jardine and Rick Jackson barely played; the five starters often played an average of 37+ minutes between them.

Second, these are young guys, ages 18 to 21, with bodies that should recuperate fairly quickly. They have not played a basketball game since last Thursday, five days ago. They played at home then, and they played at home now, so they had no travel. UMass played on Friday night and had to travel to Syracuse, so they had one less day of travel plus travel.

It’s this third reason that really irks me. The five Syracuse starters played 162 of the 200 minutes of the game. The five UMass starters played 173 of the 200 minutes of the game. Two Syracuse reserves played 10+ minutes. Only one UMass reserve played more than 5 minutes. Which team went deeper into their lineup? Both teams played the same frenetic pace.

Think about that. The Orange had more rest than their opposition. Yes, the game was fast pace, a pace that UMass is more accustomed to playing than Syracuse. But UMass is also used to playing 8-10 guys a game. Syracuse plays only 7. In the second half, despite playing the entire game, Jonny Flynn was still running the court with relative ease. Where were his teammates? If Flynn’s not tired, why are his teammates?

I have to question the conditioning efforts the Syracuse players put into their season, with the exception of Flynn. I always believed it was an advantage for Syracuse to play a shorter bench in the regular season because come the post season, all teams shorten their benches. Syracuse players were used to the minutes, the opposition is not. Edge for Syracuse. Except not this year.

I do have to imagine there is some difficulty in maintaining a high level of game fitness when you have less than a full squad. Inter squad scrimmages would be tough to have, especially at a full court frenetic pace. However, I do not believe that effect would be significant.

Of course it was not all about being tired. Syracuse made a lot of poor decisions on the court down the stretch. Ill-advised passes, taking difficult shots too early in the possession, failing to hustle on defense. I’m sure part of the ‘fatigue’ was the fact that the Orange had a big lead, and watched it dwindle away. They were shocked that they were losing another large lead, and I’m sure that deflated their energy.

The Orange have a great group of talented young players, guys who are fun to watch (most of the time). I hope they learned a lot from this season for next year, and 2008-2009 could be a great one for the Orange. Especially with the incoming freshman and the return of Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins.

I just hope that the inability to hold leads is not something these guys have grown accustomed too. I think Devo won’t put up with it. You could see that Kristof Onganaet was not happy about the efforts, yet he’s not really in the leadership position.

Anyhow, enough complaints from here. There were plenty of good moments in 2007-2008, and I’ll choose to remember those from here on out. I just had to clear my head of the negative energy from last night’s loss.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Syracuse in the NIT

The Syracuse Orangemen has been to the NIT tournament twelve times, six times in the Jim Boeheim era, including the current edition of the Orange. Some of those teams felt rewarded for the trip to the NIT (rightfully so), while others felt the NIT was a poor consolation prize. All of the teams were good teams, but which was the best? The Orange were in the NIT in 1946, 1950, 1964, 1967, 1971, 1972, 1981, 1982, 1997, 2002, 2007 and 2008.

To keep the semantics clear, I am referring to which team was the best overall team for the pre-NIT season. I am not referring which team performed the best in the NIT tournament, nor which team was playing the best when the NIT began. There would be different answers to each of those.

The 1981-1982 Orangemen were the 12th best NIT team for Syracuse. The Orangemen were led by junior tri-captains Erich Santifer (17.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Leo Rautins (13.3 ppg, 5.2 apg, 5.9 rpg) and Tony ‘Red’ Bruin (14.0 ppg). Freshman Andre Hawkins shared the center position with sophomore Sean Kerins. Gene Waldron ran the point, though Rautins ran the offense from his power forward position. Ron Payton was a valuable sixth man with 10.7 ppg. Unfortunately, the Orangemen were in very competitive Big East conference, and lacked strong rebounders. The Orangemen finished the regular season 15-11, 7-7 in the Big East conference, and struggled down the stretch going 2-4 in the last six games. The Orangemen then lost in the first round of the Big East Tournament, dropping their record to 15-12. The Orangemen were grateful to be in the NIT that season, where they would beat St. Peters 84-75 in the first round before losing to Bradley 95-81 in the second round.

The 1980-1981 Orangemen were the 11th best NIT team. Senior center Danny Schayes led the team with 14.6 ppg and 8.3 rebounds. Senior Eddie Moss ran the offense and the defense, with 5.4 assists per game, and Marty Headd was the perimeter shooter averaging 11.9 ppg. A trio of talented sophomores were the remaining significant portions of the team: Erich Santifer (14.0 ppg), Leo Rautins (9.3 ppg) and Tony Bruin (11.8 ppg). The Orangemen went 15-11 during the regular season, 6-8 in the Big East conference, and struggled 1-4 in the last five regular season games. Headd would break his wrist in practice right before the Big East tournament, moving Bruin into the starting lineup. The Orangemen would make a strong run in the Big East tournament, winning the title in a dramatic triple overtime victory over Villanova, and running their record to 18-11. The Big East did not have an automatic berth that year, and the NCAA decided not to extend an invitation to Syracuse. Syracuse fans were very upset at the snub. The Orangemen were determined to prove the NCAA wrong. They would beat Marquette, Holy Cross, Michigan, and Purdue in the NIT to advance to the finals. Syracuse would play a tough game against Tulsa, eventually losing in the NIT Finals.

The 1970-1971 Orangemen were the 10th best NIT team. The team was lead by Big Bill Smith with 22.7 ppg and 14 rebounds. Junior Greg Kohls emerged as a tremendous outside scoring threat with 22.1 points per game. Senior Tom Green ran the offense, and two hustling but undersized forwards joined the squad: Mike Lee (13.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and Mark Wadach (7.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg). The Orangemen would go 19-6 during the regular season, including going 9-1 down the stretch. The Orangemen had not been to the postseason since 1967, so fans were excited about the opportunity. Despite 27 points from Smith, the Orange would lose to Michigan 82-76 in the first round.

The 1949-1950 Orangemen were the 9th best team, finishing the regular season 17-8. They were lead by junior guard Jack Kiley with 16.3 ppg. Kiley was supported offensively by Dick Suprunowicz, Bob Savage and Ed Miller. Tom Huggins, Tom Jockle and Mike Stark rounded out the team. The NIT was a prestigious tournament at the time, and many top teams chose the NIT over the NCAA. Syracuse was honored to go to the NIT. They played highly favored Long Island University in the first round and surprisingly beat them 80-52 behind 21 points from Jack Kiley. In the second round the Orangemen faced Bradley, the #1 ranked team in the nation. The Orangemen would lose that game 78-66.

The 1996-1997 Orangemen were the 8th best team. They were lead by Senior Otis Hill who pounded the middle with 15.7 ppg and 6.1 ppg. Junior swingman Todd Burgan averaged 15.1 ppg; sharpshooters Jason Cipolla (13.2 ppg) and Marius Janulis (9.3 ppg) provided perimeter scoring, and freshman Jason Hart ran the offense with 5.8 apg. The Orangemen finished the regular season 18-11, with a 9-9 conference record. The beat Notre Dame 84-66 in the Big East tournament and lost to Villanova in the 2nd round 80-70, raising their record to 19-12, 6-4 in their last 10. The Orangemen and their fans were severely shocked when they were denied an NCAA bid. No Big East team had ever been denied an NCAA bid with 18+ regular season wins, and the Orangemen had been to the National Championship game the previous season. Yet the Orangemen found themselves going to the NIT. The Orangemen found it difficult to mentally prepare for the game and easily lost to Florida State 82-67.

The 1963-1964 team was the 7th best team. The Orangemen were led by the dynamic sophomore Dave Bing who electrified Syracuse fans with his 22.2 ppg and 8.2 rpg. West Point transfer Chuck Richards brought 22.0 ppg and 9.5 rpg from the center position. Juniors Richie Duffy and Phil Schoff contributed as did a quartet of sophomores: Norm Goldsmith, Sam Penceal, Jim Boeheim and Frank Nicoletti. The Syracuse program was on the rebound from the darkest period in the schools history, and fans were excited to get the post season. Dave Bing would play well in the first round scoring 31 points, though the Orange would fall short to New York University 77-68.

The 2001-2002 Orangemen were the 6th best team, and a very difficult team to rank. A very talented team that totally collapsed under the immense strain of internal personal issues. The Orangemen were led by talented sharpshooting senior Preston Shumpert with 20.7 ppg and 6.1 rpg. DeSean Williams added 15.9 ppg and 4.1 apg. Kueth Duany brought a solid 12.2 ppg and 5.3 rpg. Sophomores Hakim Warrick and James Thues were valuable members, and freshman Craig Forth plugged the middle. The Orangemen would start the season 14-2 and rise up to #7 in the polls in January. Then internal strife took over; too much in-fighting on the team. The Orangemen went 3-7 over their last ten games, and would lose in the first round of the Big East tournament to Villanova 78-64. The Orangemen were denied an NCAA berth despite having a 20-11 record and going 9-7 in the Big East. It was difficult to criticize the non-selection with the total collapse of the team. However, the Orangemen seemed to overcome their problems and played solid basketball in the NIT. They would beat St. Bonaventure, Butler and Richmond to advance to the NIT quarter finals. Shumpert was hot, with 36 points against Butler. The Orangemen would lose to South Carolina 66-59 in the quarter finals and then lose 65-54 to Temple in the consolation game.

I would rank the current Syracuse squad, 2007-2008 as the 5th best NIT team. The Orangemen had a lot of injury and personnel issues, forcing the squad to play with 7 players for most the season, virtually all of them first year players. Freshman Jonny Flynn and Donte’ Greene would lead the way, along with sophomores Paul Harris and Arinze Onuaku, and junior college transfer Kris Onganaet. The Orange finished the regular season 18-12, and lost in the first round of the Big East tournament dropping their record to 18-13. Not much argument about being excluded from the NCAA tournament. The Orangemen had their opportunities to win the right games, and fell short. They are currently making a good run in the NIT, winning their first two. We’ll see how far they can go. They are definitely a talented team, one short on experience and depth, but high on skill and athletic ability.

The 2006-2007 Orangemen were the 4th best team. Led by seniors Demetris Nichols (18.9 ppg), Terrence Roberts (8.9 ppg), Darryl Watkins (8.1 ppg) and sophomore Eric Devendorf (14.8 ppg), the team finished the regular season 21-9, 10-6 in the Big East conference. The Orangemen would win their first game in the Big East and lose their second game, bringing their record to 22-10. To the shock of Syracuse fans (and many fans across the country) the Orangemen would be denied an NCAA bid, and would become constant talk for that season and the following season on the snub. The Orangemen would play well in the NIT, despite the fact that Terrence Roberts was struggling with an injured knee. They would beat South Alabama at the Carrier Dome before an NIT record crowd, and then beat San Diego State 80-64. They would lose their next game to Clemson74-70.

The third best team was the 1971-1972 team. This was Roy’s Runts, a collection of hustling players with skill and talent, but not much height. The backcourt was strong with senior Greg Kohls shooting out the lights with 26.7 points per game and flashy Dennis DuVal with 15.8 ppgs. Juniors Mike Lee (18.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and Mark Wadach (9.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg) played solid up front and undersized sophomore Bob Dooms played very well at center (7.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg). The team would finish the season 21-5, going 9-1 down the stretch. There were hopes for an NCAA bid, but the NIT became the option. Syracuse would win in the first round, but lose to a very talented and very tall Maryland team in the second round 71-65.

The 1966-1967 team was the 2nd best squad. A strong trio led the team: senior Rick Dean controlled the middle with 18.0 ppg and 9.1 rpg, junior Vaughn Harper grabbed all the rebounds with 14.3 rpg, along with 16.3 ppg, and junior George Hicker was the sharp shooter with 18.6 ppg. The backcourt was handled well by smooth shooting Richie Cornwall and good ball handler Steve Ludd. The Orangemen loved to run the ball, and they ran it will. The team was 19-2 and ranked #8 in the polls before they lost three of their last four games. Those losses dropped the Orange to 20-5, and cost the Orangemen an NCAA bid. The team faced a talented New Mexico team in the first round; the Lobos loved to slow the game down, providing an interesting contrast of styles. The Orangemen would lose that battle in a close lost 66-64.

The 1945-1946 team was the best Syracuse NIT team. This was a post war team, with a mix of freshmen and war veterans. The star of the team was veteran Bullet Billy Gabor, averaging 15.2 points per game. Freshman Royce Newell was second on the squad with 309 points and provided a strong center presence. Andy Mogish was the strong rebounding presence, and fellow war veterans Lew Spicer, Roy Peters and Larry Crandall provided depth. Freshman Mike Stark was the defensive spark. The team scored 106 points on 12/8/1945 against Oswego Teachers College to be the first Syracuse team to break the 100 point barrier. The Orangemen would outscore their opposition 1651 to 1044, an average margin of 23.3 ppg. Syracuse finished the regular season 23-3, and was honored to go to the NIT, the first post season bid in Syracuse basketball history. They would lose to Muhlenburg 47-41 in the first round.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What if?

The Orange ended up in the NIT tournament for the second year in a row, though this year there is no complaining about where they ended up. They did not take care of their business during the stretch run of the regular season, and took an early bow out of the Big East Tournament against another bubble team Villanova.

The loss to South Florida really hurt them, as did the three straight losses to Louisville, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh loss was a very painful one for the fans. I think the loss had even further implications for the Orange.

If Syracuse beats Pittsburgh that day, and everything else stays the same, the Orangemen go into the Big East Tournament with 20 wins, 10-8 in conference play. Pitt would have been 9-9. Syracuse’s first round match-up would have been against Cincinnati, while Pitt would have played Villanova. As well as Pitt is playing, that would’ve favored a win by Pitt. Since Villanova was the last at-large bid to make the tournament, they would have been on the outside looking in. It’s even quite possible that had Pitt lost that game to Villanova, Pitt wouldn’t have made the NCAA. They finished 21-9, 9-9 in conference play, but they were poor down the stretch and had a very weak out of conference record. If they bowed out in the first round of the Big East tournament, they definitely would have been bubble material.

With 20 wins, a 10-8 conference record, and a higher RPI, Syracuse would not have been as perilously close to being a bubble team. Villanova (or Pitt) losing, would have opened up a tournament position. Even if Syracuse lost to Cininnati in the first round, they may very well have earned a tournament bid.

Ahhh well. No reason to cry over spilled milk.

A close game to Robert Morris last night is not what the Orange wanted for the start of the NIT, but that’s what they got. The loss of Jonny Flynn for most of the game was paralyzing to the Orange offense, and shortened the short bench by one (again). It looks like Flynn may not play on Thursday (Donna Ditota indicated that earlier today), and playing Maryland with six players, and Scoop Jardine at the point for 40 minutes is scary. Not that Scoop can’t play the point; he can. But he’s going from spotting Flynn a few moments each game (even while Flynn staying on the court) to being the sole point guard for 40 minutes. That’s a lot for a guy who is not used to it.

Plus the loss of Flynn leaves the Orange with one reputable three point shooter in Dante’ Greene (I know Onganaet can shoot the three, but nobody’s too worried about it defensively). With Jardine playing the point, if I were Maryland, I would pack the paint. Scoop can’t drive, Harris won’t have any lanes, and Onuaku won’t be able to get open. I’d challenge Greene to beat me. Greene can do it, but we’ve seen him disappear from many games down the stretch run this year, and if I’m Maryland, I’m taking my chances on Greene not being able to carry the team with his perimeter shooting.
To further hamper the Orange lineup, reserve point guard Justin Thomas is unlikely to play. Apparently he too is injured (per Brent Axe).

It figures the Orange should have a couple more injuries for the post season. It seems only fitting for this injury hampered season. Hopefully it will be out of the Orange's system for years to come.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Controlling the Boards against the Hall

I would have thought the Orange had no realistic chance of making the NCAA at this point. I do not think they have enough quality wins on the schedule, and their performance down the stretch has not been impressive: they just snapped a 3 game losing streak. But I have seen some of the experts still have the Orange ‘on the bubble’, and a win against Marquette and a couple big wins in the Big East tournament ‘might’ put them in. I’m skeptical that will be enough, but we will see, and hope for the best.

Wednesday’s 85-73 win against Seton Hall had some unusual statistical anomalies, and they pretty much sum up Syracuse’s season to this point. Syracuse out rebounded the Pirates 54-29, a margin of +25. That’s outstanding at any level of play, and when these Orange players want to rebound, they can rebound with the best. Green, Ongenaet and Onuaku had 13, 11, and 14 rebounds respectively.

Yet, despite a +25 rebound edge, both teams had the exact same number of shot opportunities: 63 shots from the floor, and 26 from the free throw line. Syracuse was much better at converting from the floor (50.8% versus 36.5%), which was the difference in final scoring. It is not very often that you see two teams with the exact same number of scoring opportunities. And while I do not have access to the numbers, I am fairly confident that it never happens when one team out rebounds the other by +25.

How do you out rebound your opponent by 25, and take the exact same number of shots? One way is that you turn the ball over 22 times, as opposed to only 11 by your opponent. Sloppy play.

The Orange have some of the best talent in the country this year, and on any given night they can probably beat the best there is in the country. However, they are also capable of losing to the most mediocre team in the country. The team definitely hustles, they seemingly never give up, but they also have breakdowns in judgment and mental mistakes. They have not yet learned how to handle the pressure moments on both ends of the court; when to step up big on defense, and when to make the smart play on offense.

As much as Syracuse fans are suffering this year, I think that the games from this season are great learning opportunities for next year. If the whole team comes back, and you add in an Eric Devendorf (even at 50%) and Andy Rautins (who should be at 100%), it will be a veteran team by current NCAA standards, and loaded with talent.

The Big East tournament and post season this year (whichever tournament) should be fun to watch. But if this year’s team can learn from their mistakes, they should be a very tough team to handle next year.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Injuries - Just a Matter of Time

Syracuse was likely already out of the NCAA tournament (barring a miraculous run in the Big East tournament), but the loss against Pitt sealed that deal.

In a perverse way, this has been a fun season to watch with the constant ebb and flow of reduction of available scholarship players along with the growth and development of the young first year starters.

Syracuse has had an unusual number of injuries this season, with three players with season ending ailments: Eric Devendorf, Andy Rautins, and Devan Brennan-McBride. A good friend and I were talking the other night, and we could not recall there ever being an established player who Syracuse lost for the season in the Boeheim era due to injury.

Syracuse has missed players for chunks of the season. Tony Bruin missed a few games his junior and senior seasons. Leo Rautins would miss seven games his junior season due to a knee injury. Marty Headd would break his wrist in practice as the post season began his senior season. Etan Thomas missed a couple games his senior season.

There have been unestablished players who had career debilitating injuries. Brennan-McBride would fall into that category. Center Larry O’Neill would severely cut his arm in a window accident which he never fully recovered from. Herman ‘The Helicopter’ Harried would blow out his knee after his freshman year, and never be the high flying leaper again. Ethan Cole hurt his leg early his senior season and miss the rest of the year. Jeremy McNeil severely injured his knee six games into his freshman year (he had played only 40 minutes at that point). Arinze Onuaku missed his sophomore season after a summer knee injury (he had averaged 2.0 points per game his freshman year and played 243 minutes).

And there would be guys who had significant nagging injuries that slowed them down, but never took them out of the lineup. Raf Addison suffered through a leg injury his senior season, an injury that significantly hurt his impact and hampered the team. Gerry McNamara would play the end of his junior season and all of his senior season with a nagging groin injury which hampered his shooting. Terrence Roberts was hampered down the stretch his senior season with a sore knee.

But never in the Boeheim era had an established player been disabled and knocked out for the entire season (such as Rautins) or injured and unable to play again for the bulk of the season (Devendorf). Both scenarios happened this same year for Coach Boeheim.

Let’s hope it takes another 32 years for injuries to have such a significant impact on the Orangemen.