Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Thoughts on Wrapping up the Regular Season

I am very happy with how the Orange finished out their regular season. They held tough with a good Villanova team, and then they won the final four games of the regular season to finish 23-8. The last four games were really promising. They beat St. Johns, Rutgers and Cincinnati, which in itself would not impress anyone. However, it is the way they beat those teams that was so rewarding.

The Orange played solid defense in those three games, and they ended up playing hard until the end of each of the games, putting all the games in the blow out category. That is what good teams are supposed to do; bury the teams weaker than them, instead of letting them hang around.

The win against Marquette, a top twenty team, on the road, to end the season was an especially nice touch. It is very nice being in that comfortable position knowing that the Orange are virtually guaranteed an NCAA berth, and now they are just playing for the seeding position. A welcome change from the past two seasons.
Syracuse had only one ‘bad’ loss all year and that was to Cleveland State. That game is not going to hurt them as it is probably considered more of a fluke with the half court shot beating them. The Georgetown loss does not look good now, but they were a top 10 team at the time. Syracuse beat every other team they should beat this season. I had written in the preseason if they went 22-9 with their schedule I would find that very impressive, and then ended 23-8. So no complaints here.

Jonny Flynn made the Big East Second Team, and I have no problem with that position. The Big East got smart and went back to a reasonable First Team, Second Team and Third Team selection, instead of the incredibly bloated ten man teams the past three years. Flynn is the best basketball player at Syracuse, and definitely one of the best guards in the league. He is not a great point guard, as I have written a few times this season, but he is absolutely a great player.

The happiest moment for me in the Marquette game was the three point shot by Rautins to seal the win in overtime. Why? That play showed me a maturing process for Jonny Flynn as a point guard. Flynn drove the lane and drew the defenders. 99% of the time this season, Flynn was going to force that shot. Instead he did the correct move and he dished the ball out to Rautins who was wide open because his defender had slipped down to cover Flynn. If Flynn is going to start playing like a point guard and making those smart decisions, then the Orange become a far tougher team to beat.

As good as Flynn and Eric Devendorf are, the fate of Syracuse falls into the hands of Andy Rautins and Paul Harris. Rautins is probably the most ‘valuable’ player on the team this season. He shot 40% from three point range in the games Syracuse won and 30% in the eight they lost. When Syracuse gets Rautins involved in the offense, it opens up the rest of the court, making it easier for Flynn, Devendorf, and Harris all to get to the basket. And Rautins has shown he is very adept at passing that ball to the cutting player or to the open player down in the post. As offense flows through Rautins, the team plays more ‘team ball’, and less one-on-one.

Harris’ rebounding is the other crucial factor for the Orange. When Harris shows up to play and works to get his rebounds, the Orange are a tough team to beat. They are 9-2 when Harris had double digit rebounds, 14-6 when he does not. Rebounding is mostly a motivational issue, and I do not know why Harris has a tough time staying motivated for rebounding on a regular basis. But I do know that when he does, the opposition gets limited shot opportunities and the Orange play well.

Syracuse’s free throw shooting as a team is actually very comforting. Throw out Arinze Onuaku’s numbers, and Syracuse shoots 70% as a team. Flynn shoots 79% from the charity strip, Devendorf 81% and Harris 73%. Rautins is only 68%, but he has had limited free throw opportunities this season.

Onuaku is of course a well documented poor free throw shooter. He shot 30% from the line for the regular season, and an astonishing 17% (10-60) in Big East play.
Rautins is on the flip side for conference play. Rautins hit 100% of his free throws in Big East play. But despite playing 469 minutes in conference play, Rautins only took five free throw attempts during that time. That’s one free throw every 93.8 minutes of play. That is probably reflective on the fact that he took only 28 shots inside the three point arc in conference play, and the Big East lets the players play tough inside. But still, an amazing number to me.

I do not know how far the Orange can go this post season. I think winning the Big East Tournament would be far tougher than making the Final Four. To win the Big East Tournament, Syracuse would likely have to beat along the way Louisville, Connecticut and Pittsburgh. There are very few teams that good in the country, and Syracuse would be very unlikely to face three teams of that caliber in the NCAA tournament.

I don’t think the Orange have what it takes to win the NCAA tournament. Their inside game is not strong enough to face some of the other top teams. However, the Orange have shown a strong ability to win the close games, and they did beat Kansas and Memphis in hostile environments. I know if I were another team, I would not want to draw Syracuse as an opponent in the tournament. Syracuse is a very experienced team with their top 7 players consisting of one senior, 3 fourth year juniors, another junior, and two sophomores. In today’s college basketball, that is a lot of experience.

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