Thursday, November 20, 2008

2-0, Many to Go

The Orangemen are off to a 2-0 start. Manhandling LeMoyne was expected, and Richmond was a good early season challenge. I think like a lot of fans, I would have hoped for an easier win; partly because it would have been easier to watch, but also because it would have been an indicator of how much better Syracuse was this season than last.

The expectation clearly would be that the Orange would be better this year. The team lost only one player from last year, 1st round pick Donte’ Greene. Losing the talent of a first round pick can hurt a team. But look at what the Orangemen gained for this season: an extra year of experience and maturity for Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris, Kris Ongenaet, Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson ; the healthy return of Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf; the arrival of highly tauted freshmen Kris Joseph and Mookie Jones. That’s a lot of significant plusses versus the one minus. So without even playing a game, we could feel confident they were better than last year.
The team is better, but the schedule this year is significantly tougher too. The conference schedule is absurdly difficult, and the non-conference schedule is one that Dick Vitale would not complain about. So Syracuse is going to lose some games this year, and likely some non-conference games.

That is what made the win over Richmond so crucial. Syracuse cannot afford the bad losses this year, and a loss to Richmond, at home, would have been a bad loss . That does not mean that Richmond was not a difficult team to play; they were. Their motion offense can be difficult to handle defensively, and they had some guys who can shoot threes, and Atlantic 10 teams had beaten Syracuse three times in a row.

There were things I was happy to see in the Richmond game. Eric Devendorf played like the Devo we knew pre-injury. He played with emotion, he took and made some crucial shots, and he took over the game at the right moment and time. He also showed the typical Devo careless turnover (seven of them) and some shaky defense at times. His contributions on the court greatly exceeded his errors.

Jonny Flynn showed he can still score and drive the lane. He made some impressive three point shots early on. And 27 points is a good night, no matter who you play. Arinze Onuaku was a stud inside, making every shot with ease in the first half, and most in the second (though missing a few gimmes). Kris Joseph showed some flashes of talent in his time on the court, and Ongenaet provided his usual quiet but necessary rebounding.

However, as nice as all those positives were, there was nothing new… no signs of growth for the team. We’ve seen Devo, Flynn and Onuaku play that way before, routinely. This was a game the team likely would have lost last year, but with Devo and Rautins on the court, we had expected (at least I did) that the meltdowns so prevalent last year would be less likely this year. Now, it is only two games into the year, so there is not a lot to look at for growth; I am just saying that we have not seen any yet.

Syracuse settled for playing on the perimeter far too much, shades of last year. Onuaku was unstoppable inside, and yet Flynn stopped feeding him the ball with about seven minutes to go in the first half. Why?

Devo wore his emotions on his sleeve as he always has, and rose his level of intensity in the second half. But I did not feel it was that contagious to his teammates. I would like to see Onuaku get fired up some time. I realize he could serious injure someone if he were out of control, but how about a scowl or a shout now and then? Paul Harris decided to be ‘no show’ Paul for the Richmond game. He played Jekyll and Hyde last year with his intensity vacillating game to game, and he just wasn’t there that night.

All summer we kept wondering how coach Jim Boeheim was going to spread the playing time at the guard position. We all knew that Jonny Flynn was too tired last year having to play every minute of every game down the stretch. With Rautins and Devo back, Harris able to play the guard, and freshman Mookie Jones also able to play time there, Flynn was clearly going to get his break. Instead, Flynn played 39 of the 40 minutes. Now historically, Boeheim has always ridden his point guards; Sherman Douglas and Pearl Washington almost never left the game. But the constant theme last year was how tired Flynn was, so I expected a change.

Rautins and Devo both got their playing time, with 26 and 31 minutes respectively. Syracuse played a lot of three guard offense, with Rautins taking the forward defensive position. I’m sure we will see a lot of that this season.

Jonny Flynn is a decent free throw shooter, making 78% of his shots last season. But also similar to last season, Flynn missed the crucial free throws down the stretch. Not enough to cost Syracuse the game, but enough to allow Richmond to hang around and have a shot at it. The ball is going to be in Devo, Flynn and Rautin’s hands down the stretch; Flynn’s going to have to starting making those.

Rautins was very cold from the perimeter, going 0-5 from three point range. He was taking the three point shots from long distance, and his shots were consistently long. I’m confident he’ll start making them, but it would have been nice to have seen him make them now.
Syracuse has a very deep bench, and Boeheim only went eight players deep. Freshman Mookie Jones did not even play, and Rick Jackson played only nine minutes. Again, Boeheim almost always goes to a short bench in close games; I am just surprised the Jones did not get into the game in the first half.

Syracuse is lacking a strong scoring presence from the forward position. Harris can score, but he prefers to do it by having the ball in his possession and driving from the perimeter like a guard; Syracuse does not need another guy who can drive from the perimeter. Ongenaet only gets garbage shots. They need a guy who can slash to the hoop without the ball and get the feed, and I have not seen that yet. I’m hoping Kris Joseph will be that guy.

But hey, it is only two games. Syracuse is 2-0; they’ve done what they need to do at this point. The positives we expected were there. There is a lot to build upon and still a lot of potential for the team. I’m very confident the NCAA tournament is in their future, and the team will be a lot of fun to watch.

Let’s go Orange!

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