Butler did everything they needed to do to win this game, and they deserved it. They were the better team last night. They imposed their defensive will on Syracuse, and for reasons that are tough to fathom, it rattled the Orange. The Orange did not shoot poorly, though they shot below their own high standard. They hit 44% of their shots and 37% from 3 point range; they missed only 4 free throws. Meanwhile they held Butler to 40% from the field, and 25% from three point range (only 6 three pointers made).
The difference, as everyone who watched the game painfully knows, was that Butler protected the ball on offense and Syracuse gave it away. The Bulldogs had only seven turnovers in the game; Syracuse had 18, the majority of those in the first half (12).
This was a team loss for Syracuse. They played as a team all year, and won because of solid teamwork; the loss last night was in part because that teamwork was not there. Syracuse has had a high number of assists all year, particularly in terms of field goals made. Against Butler the Orange had only 12 assists on the 21 field goals they made. That is a good ratio for most teams, but when the Orange have been clicking this year, they were getting 17 to 18 assists on those 21 field goals.
There was some consistent poor decision making. The team had a very difficult time taking advantage of the Wes Johnson mismatch on Willie Veasley. Scoop Jardine seemed to carry a ‘shoot first, pass second’ mentality into the game, and we needed him to run the offense. Brandon Triche, who shook off his slump with solid outings against Vermont and Gonzaga, appeared to disappear again. Kris Joseph, 22% three point shooter, pulled up for a three during one sequence, with plenty of time left on the shot clock. Andy Rautins had five turnovers, and only two assists.
This game was the first game where the loss of Arinze Onuaku really showed. Syracuse needed a big man down low who was going to catch the ball and make Butler pay inside. Rick Jackson, who hustled all game, seemed to have soaked his hands in butter before tip off. I do not know how he only had 3 turnovers, as it seemed like many more. I guess in many of those cases, he never had possession of the ball, and thus cannot be credited with a turnover.
It is disappointing. And it is always tough to see the season end on a loss. Though, most college basketball seasons for most teams end on a loss. With the exception of the NIT Champion and the NCAA Champion, everyone else goes home losing that last day, whether it’s in your conference tournament or one of the two national tournaments.
The most disappointing thing to me is I am going to miss watching this particular team play. I thoroughly enjoyed watching them this year; to me they were a fun team to watch. Good ball movement, clutch shooting, the ‘shut it down’ defense. No more opportunities to watch Andy Rautins shoot a long distance three, or make a bullet pass. No more Onuaku pounding the ball inside, or even the comical efforts at the free throw line. I will assume Wesley Johnson will be gone, and I’ll miss his soaring leaps for rebounds and dunks, and his persistent smile.
On the whole, this was a season to enjoy, and one to remember fondly. The team went 30-5; that is outstanding! They won the Big East Regular Season title, running away with it. They won the preseason NIT Tournament. They went 7-2 versus top 25 teams, and 6-0 versus top 10 teams. They played in front of an NCAA Record crowd when they beat Villanova. They swept the Hoyas during the regular season and beat UConn in their only meeting. They rose to #1 in the National Polls, for the first time since 1989, and they did it starting out being unranked. They earned a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, something they had not done since 1979. Their head coach earned his 800th career win.
There was a whole lot to cheer for in 2009-2010. And that is how I will remember this season.
Thank you Orange, for a wonderful year.