Sunday, March 18, 2012

You Cannot Play Them All

Jim Boeheim cannot win praise from his detractors, regardless of what he does.   You would think Syracuse was mired in an underperforming season with a record of 20-10 instead of being 33-2, ranked #2 in the country with a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament.  Fans love to second guess head coaches, and Syracuse fans are no different.
Historically Boeheim has gone only 7-8 players deep on his roster, preferring to keep his top talent on the court as much as possible.  This season, he has gone 10 players deep most of the season and yet he still gets criticized for not giving some players more playing time.
I like Brandon Triche’s game a lot. He is likely the team’s best three point shooter  and clearly their best free throw shooter.  He is the best rebounding guard on the team, and while not flashy, he is a solid point guard, and he is a three year starter with tons of experience.  Yet he sits a lot, and that is quite reasonable considering the best offensive talent on this team is the backcourt players.  You have to find time for Scoop Jardine and for Dion Waiters; Boeheim does an excellent job of getting them all playing time. 
A faction of the fan base criticize Boeheim because he does not play Michael Carter-Williams more.  MCW plays in most games, about 3-7 minutes of time.  Considering there are three talented guards ahead of him in terms of experience, and current talent level, I think it says a world about how good Boeheim thinks he is by getting him that time.  He is getting some seasoning and experience, and being handled well by being put into situations he can succeed, and being held from situations where he can fail.  I think it will be invaluable for him come next season; and if the need arose this season, he would play more.  My guess is MCW will be a start for Syracuse and in the NBA someday.  Right now, that is not his role.
Other fans question why Boeheim doesn’t play to his strength and run a three guard offense. That is looking at only half the picture.  A three guard offense would definitely help the offense; there is no doubt about it.  However, what is the greatest strength of this team? It’s zone defense, a defense so good that a lot of fans in forums call it the best Syracuse defense they have ever seen.  Syracuse cannot play that zone with three guards; that would require Triche or Waiters to play the wing and guard a forward, which could be disastrous.  Do you really want to take away the best asset of the team, their zone defense, in order to get more playing time for a guard?  And going to man-to-man is not the solution; the team does not practice that well enough to effectively use it and Boeheim and his staff recruit players ideal for zone defense, not for man-to-man.
I have seen many fans question why Trevor Cooney was redshirted, when the team could clearly use his three point shooting.  Boeheim cannot currently find enough time for a talented Michael Carter-Williams on the court, and you want him to find time for Cooney?  Furthermore, we do not even know how good Cooney is with defense or ball handling at this point in his career.  I do not know how you would find reasonable playing time for him, and having him lose a season as the fifth guard makes no sense.
Rakeem Christmas is the interesting player in the mix. I know some fans are looking at Christmas’ Kansas State effort of 11 rebounds and 3 blocked shots as evidence that Boeheim should have played him a lot more.  Those numbers are huge, and should not be taken lightly.  I do think Christmas is far more comfortable at center than forward.  I also think Christmas is a better rebounder than Melo, in fact, much better, and likely a better offensive player.  Christmas has been playing organized basketball for years, where as Melo only a few season, and I think Christmas is more comfortable with the ball in his hands. He is by no means an offensive juggernaut.   Christmas is okay at defense in the center position, but does not have the dominating shot blocking, the body size, nor the zone understanding that Melo does.   So there is a loss of defense without Melo, which would be expected as Melo was the Big East Defensive Player of the Year.
I think Boeheim and his staff want Christmas to develop into a power forward, a role Christmas is not comfortable with now.  I think Christmas is likely failing his defensive assignments as a forward, and is not the offensive threat that Joseph, Fair or Southerland is, so he is the fourth forward behind  three other veteran forwards.  I would like to see a couple more minutes out of Christmas each game, and he does have a very quick hook from Boeheim.  However, in a best case scenario, Christmas was not going to get too many more playing minutes at the forward position. 
Southerland needed the playing time to open up the Syracuse perimeter game, and he has developed his rebounding and defensive skills.  Fans love C.J. Fair, and Fair usually brings that spark to the table, along with adding in all the statistics stuffing needing to help the team.  Kris Joseph is the best scoring forward on the team, and the most experienced player on the team. 
You could have played Christmas instead of Baye Keita at center, but remember they want to develop Christmas a forward which will help him in his pursuit of a professional career, and Keita can only play center.  Keita needs to develop too, and Syracuse needed Melo on the court as much as they could.
I think minor changes could have been made at various points in the season, but they would have been minor, and with no impact on the season results.  Remember, Syracuse is 33-2. 
Some tidbits of information:
Rakeem Christmas has now started five games at center, and he has had rebound totals of 9, 1, 7, 7 and 11.  Fab Melo averages only 5.8 rebounds a game.  Of course, shot blockers are often out of rebounding position, so you trade off one ability for another.
James Southerland has scored 43 points in the four post season games, shooting 8 of 17 from three point range, and chipping in 24 rebounds, and 8 blocks. 
Where as C.J. Fair disappeared to? The man was a stat sheet stuffer all season.  In the postseason run, Fair is 2-17 from the field, including misses from point blank range, and open 10 foot jumpers.  He has 17 rebounds, but 11 came against UNC Asheville; only 6 in the other three games combined.   This has coincided with him starting, but that cannot be the reason as he did not suffer when he started three games during Melo’s first suspension.
Triche found his shooting touch as the regular season ended, but he has struggled in the post season. He is 1 of 10 from three point range, and surprisingly 4 of 10 from the free throw line.
Dion Waiters struggled for much of the season at the free throw line, but has shot 16 of 18 from the charity stripe in the post season.   He has also made 25 of 45 shots during that time frame, and has had only three turnovers.
Scoop Jardine has made seven of his eight free throw attempts in the post season, and has 17 assists the past three games. However, he has also had 14 turnovers the past three games, which has to stop.
Kris Joseph, who has logged more playing time than any other Syracuse player this post season, has continued his month long shooting problems. Joseph is 8 for 31 in the post season from the field, including 2 for 13 from three point range.  He was held reboundless against Cincinnati and had only one rebound against Kansas State yesterday. 

Recipe for a 33-2 Record

Syracuse is now 33-2, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament.  The Orange had a slight scare in the first round to UNC – Asheville, but I would suggest that while the score was indeed close, the outcome was very consistent with the Syracuse basketball.
The casual Syracuse observer may not be aware of the pattern for the Orange this season, but his is the team’s recipe for winning games:
1 – Let the opposing team jump to a 9-15 point lead early in the game
2 – Then reel them back in, tying up the score towards the end of the first half, or early in the second half.
3 – Pull away from the other team with a 7-8 point lead.
4 – Let the other team get back into the game to keep it close.  Often this is related to a couple of ‘Scoop moments’ or the opposition closing their eyes and banking in a couple of desperation three point shots as the shot clock expires.
5 -  Play shutdown defense the last two minutes of the game, closing the door on the opponent’s ability to get back into the game.
There are variations within that framework, but it surely describes many of the Syracuse games this year.  It has given many Orange fans a bit of anxiety, myself included, and even though I have gotten to the point where I know that is how it is going to play out, it still unnerves me. 
Lost in the midst of the bad call controversy of the UNC Asheville game was the outstanding defense by Syracuse in the last 21 seconds of the game.  The Bulldogs were down by two possessions, and knew they would have to score twice. They came down the court, and Syracuse played such stifling defense that for 10-12 seconds, very precious time, the Bulldogs could not even get a glimpse of the basket.  Finally out of desperation they tried to pass the basket down low, the Orange intercepted the ball, and the game was officially over.
The officiating, while bad, has clearly been proven not to be the determining factor of the outcome of the game.  The officials properly called the lane violation, much to the fans dismay.  And they blew the out of bounds call; they should have called the foul for bumping Triche, sending the Orange’s best free throw shooter to the line.
Even if the calls were bad calls, and even if the officials had called them the other way (i.e. no lane violation, and gave the ball to the Bulldogs on the out of bounds), I would submit the Orange still would have won.  It would have changed the situations in the game in both instances, but the Orange have seemed to win all those close games this year.  They have the knack for causing the crucial turnover, making the clutch shot, and shutting down offenses when they must. 
The Kansas State game followed the same formula, with the difference being that the Orange offense was highly effective and efficient in the second half, and the game became a blowout, so there was no late comeback.
For those who think Syracuse is overrated: they are 33-2.  The object of the game is to win games; they won one of the major conferences easily, won all their big games of the season, and did not lose to anyone they should not have.  They aren’t impressing people with their style points, and they have had many ugly wins mainly because their offense can be downright ugly at times and their defense makes other teams look ugly.  The bottom line is they are winning games.  Even if they were to lose their next game, that does not mean they are overrated; this is the NCAA tournament and upsets will happen, with ultimately only one team winning six in a row.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

All Big East Selections 2012

I cannot complain about the Syracuse All Big East Team selections.  I had guessed three Syracuse players would make the list earlier today, possibly four, and Syracuse ended up with three.
Kris Joseph earned All Big East First Team selection, becoming the 22nd Orangeman to earn that selection.  Scoop Jardine earned Second Team recognition, and Dion Waiters Third Team.
I thought Fab Melo may get a nod as a Third Team or Honorable Mention because of his defensive presence, but with an eighteen team league, and only 21 selections made, that is a lot of competition.
I would hate to be a South Florida fan. Your team is 12-6 in conference, 19-12 overall with an RPI of 43, and you are not considered a lock for the NCAA by the national media experts.  Then you get no players receiving any recognition in the All Big East First, Second, Third or Honorable Mention selections. Meanwhile Pitt (5-13 Big East, 16-15 overall), Villanova (5-13, 12-18), Providence (4-14, 15-16) and DePaul (3-15, 12-18), all land one player on one of the selections. Only Rutgers (6-12, 14-17) was shut out like South Florida.
Syracuse has done historically well in the All Big East selections.  They have 78 selections overall, far more than anyone else, with Connecticut second with 64.  And the Syracuse selections have historically been high recognitions. 35 times a Syracuse player has made first team; Georgetown is next with only 23.  23 times a Syracuse player has made second team; Connecticut is next with 20. 
The selections have been warranted. Syracuse is by far the winningest program in Big East history with 401 victories; Georgetown is next at 374. Syracuse has won 10 Big East Regular Season titles, matched only by UConn.
There have been some notable oversights in history, most recent being last year when Rick Jackson failed to make First Team, despite being the defensive player of the year and leading the conference in scoring.  But all in all, the coaches do well in their selections.

30-1! A Season for the Ages

The Orange wrapped up the regular season in style, sweeping the Louisville Cardinals with a 58-49 victory at the Carrier Dome.  Fittingly, in a season where the team really plays as a team, senior point guard Scoop Jardine was held scoreless, and was happy about it.
Syracuse is 30-1, establishing a new benchmark for wins in a regular season, besting their record of 28 set two years ago. The school record for total wins in a season is 31, set in 1986-1987, and the team should pass that mark with their post season activity.  Their one loss in the regular season is the fewest ever since post season activity began, and regardless of how their season ends, they will finish the year with their fewest losses since at least 1934-1935 when the team went 15-2.
The Orange finished 19-0 at home, only their second undefeated season in the Carrier Dome. The previous effort was from the 2002-2003 national championship team.
The games also marked the 71st time the Carrier Dome has had a crowd in excess of 30,000 fans.  Syracuse has now run their record to 48-23 in those games, including winning 11 of the last 14 big crowd games.
The Big East Tournament looms ahead, and the Orange are fortunate to get the double round bye. We will not know the Orange opponent until the end of day Wednesday. It will certainly be a team that is playing well, and playing for its post season life.  It will be another tough game.
Syracuse completed this season 5-0 against top 25 teams. The Big East was down compared to the past few seasons, and Syracuse has played its fewest top 25 ranked teams since the 2001-2002 season. However, the postseason action will certainly bump that number up a few places.  And though the number of ranked Big East teams was not as high as it has been the past few years, that does not mean the Big East was an easy schedule. Far from it.
First of all, comparing any league to the level the Big East played the past few seasons is a ridiculous standard. Secondly, ask talented teams like Pitt, Villanova and UConn about how difficult they thought this schedule was. If you are not ready to play each and every game, you will end up on the losing side of the ledger.
The Orange are 30-1.  That is absolutely remarkable; I do not care who you play. That record is a testament to the players and to the Syracuse coaching staff.  It speaks well of the leadership of the team leaders Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph. And it speaks well of the character of their teammates who bought into what they were selling.
The Big East post season accolades should be very interesting.  Several factors will come into play with Syracuse players getting consideration: (1) how much do the coaches recognize the top players focusing on the team effort instead of personal glory; (2) how much weight does the 17-1 conference record carry; (3) how much will the deep play of Syracuse and the lack of ‘go to’ players split the votes for Syracuse players?  And of course, in an eighteen team league, it’s tough to get any recognition with that much competition.
I think Jim Boeheim should win the Big East Coach of the Year. The Orange were expected to finish tied atop the Big East, but they greatly exceeded anyone’s expectations on how they did it. If you throw in the backdrop of the Bernie Fine situation, and the short term Fab Melo suspension, you have a coach who won the conference, overcome obstacles, and overachieved. What more can you ask? I know Buzz Williams (Marquette) and Mike Brey (Notre Dame) had outstanding seasons, each with their own story, but Boeheim should win it. He won’t. It will be Brey or Williams.
Syracuse’s zone defense has been the story throughout college basketball all season, and Fab Melo’s importance to that defense was undeniable, as evidenced by the impact on the team when he was missing for three games.  I think the team sacrificed individual offensive glory for the team defense, and I think coaches recognize that. I think Melo does win the Big East defensive player of the year.
If Melo is going to win the defensive player of the year, he has got to be a lock on the Most Improved Player.  The improvement in his game from last season to this season is well documented, and well known.  I would be shocked if he does not get this recognition.
The Big East Sixth man award will be interesting. First of all C.J. Fair and Dion Waiters will split the votes between one another. I personally do not consider Fair a sixth man.  He does not start the game, but he does replace Rakeem Christmas very early in the game, and he keeps that position for the rest of the game.  It is not as if Boeheim uses Fair to give Joseph a breather at any point.  Rather he uses Southerland to give Joseph and Fair a breather.  Fair is really a starter who just does not happen to start. Waiters on the other hand is a sixth man. He splits time at both the point and shooting guard positions, and may partner with either Triche or Jardine on the court. He often plays more minutes than either of them, but not always. I would vote for Waiters as the Sixth Man, and I think he will win it; but the split vote and a perception that he is not really a sixth man could hurt him.
The All Big East Team selections are the biggest mystery to me.  I would suspect that Joseph, Jardine and Waiters will all make selections to one of the teams, and I would hope Jardine and Joseph make first team. Melo might squeak in on the third team. We’ll have to see when results are released this week.
However the post season accolades go, it has been a great regular season, and now it’s time to gear up for some post season fun!
Let’s Go Orange!