Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Top 10 Highlights of Syracuse Basketball in 2014

Happy New Year to all the Orange fans out there.  As 2014 comes to close, here are my top 10 highlights from Syracuse basketball for the year.

  1. Syracuse beating Duke 91-89 in overtime on Feb 1st before an NCAA record crowd 35,446.
  2. Tyler Ennis’ 35 foot game winning basket against Pitt for a 58-56 victory at the Peterson Center on February 12th, extending the Orange's winning streak to 24 games.
  3. Syracuse’s school  record 25 game winning streak set against North Carolina State on Feb 15th.
  4. Syracuse reaching #1 in the polls on February 3rd, with the Orange being 22-0.
  5. Jim Boeheim throwing his coat and being ejected against Duke on Feb 22 at Cameron Indoor Arena.  It was Boeheim’s first career ejection, as he argued that C.J. Fair’s game winning shot should have counted; instead Fair was called with charging.
  6. Trevor Cooney scoring 33 points against Notre Dame on February 3rd.  He was 9 of 12 from three point range, and 11 of 15 from the floor in the 61-55 win.
  7. Syracuse beating Western Michigan 77-53 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament behind Trevor Cooney’s 18 points.
  8. Syracuse beating Miami 49-44 on January 4th, behind C.J. Fair’s 15 points. This would be Syracuse’s first game in ACC conference play.
  9. Syracuse beating North Carolina 57-45 on January 11th before 32,121 fans at the Carrier Dome. The Orange would lead by as much as 19 points with four minutes to play.
  10. Syracuse beating Kennesaw State 89-42 on November 14th to start the Kaleb Joseph & Chris McCullough era, kick off 115th season of Syracuse basketball and Jim Boeheim’s 39th season as head coach.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas!

I wanted to wish all the Orange fans out there a very Merry Christmas! I hope you stockings were full of neat stuff, and that Old Saint Nick came down that chimney with a bagful for you and yours.

Appropriately, the only way to wish a truly Orange Christmas is:

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Shaking Away Preconceptions

I think sometimes we as fans let our preconceptions of what a player or coach does cloud the reality of what we see.  There is a common perception among Orange fans that Jim Boeheim always plays a tight rotation of 7 players, and he is unwilling to change.  

Statistically, that is not true.  And surprisingly, we only have to go back two and three seasons to see contrary situations.

Using a guideline of players who played 10+ minutes a game, and who played in virtually all of the games they were eligible to play in (where they were not limited by injury of suspension), here is a breakdown from 1989-1990 to 2013-2014 of the number of players in Boeheim's 'rotation' (data from OrangeHoops)

2013-2014: 7
2012-2013: 9
2011-2012: 9
2010-2011: 8
2009-2010: 7
2008-2009: 8
2007-2008: 7
2006-2007: 7
2005-2006: 7
2004-2005: 8
2003-2004: 9
2002-2003: 8
2001-2002: 8
2000-2001: 7
1999-2000: 8
1998-1999: 8
1997-1998: 7
1996-1997: 7
1995-1996: 7
1994-1995: 8
1993-1994: 7
1992-1993: 8
1991-1992: 7
1990-1991: 7

1989-1990: 7

Over those 25 seasons, Boeheim did employ a seven man rotation thirteen times.  But, that means twelve times he employed a larger rotation.  Nine times he had an eight man rotation, and three times he had a nine man rotation. In 2012-2013 and 2011-2012 he had the nine man rotations... very recent indeed!

I do no think there is any doubt that Boeheim likes to play his primary five as much as he can.  And clearly a seven or eight man rotation is his norm.  He does however adjust to the talent he has.

Boeheim appears to be unwilling to play a player who has not proven himself in practice. He does not appear to be a coach who wants to play a guy 'just to give him experience'. Instead, he always works to put his team in the best position to win for that game.

It is true that Boeheim's bench will shrink during truly big games.  I would submit however, that is true for most if not all coaches. You play your best players when you need to play your best players.

In 1995-1996 Syracuse played a tight bench all season, and Kentucky, who was the dominant favorite that season was touted for the incredible depth of the team and how masterful Rick Pitino was for playing so deep into his bench.  And Kentucky did play 10 deep all season long; no player on that team averaged more than 27 minutes a game.

In the championship game, Syracuse played seven deep as they had done all year. But look at what Rick Pitino did.  Pitino, who is a great coach, went only eight players deep, and four of his starters played 27 or more minutes. Tony Delk played 37 minutes and Anthony Epps 34.

Part of that was because it was a real big game for Kentucky, and Pitino wanted his best players on the court (i.e. just like Boeheim). And part of that was that the game pace and tempo, which was dictated by Syracuse, not Kentucky, allowed Pitino the opportunity to keep his starters in the game longer.  However, read that last point again.  Pitino, in one game because of tempo, kept his starters in longer.  Boeheim plays with that tempo all 35+ games all year.  And by the way, which set of players do you think were less fatigued in that game? The guys who averaged 35-38 minutes a game all year, or the guys who averaged 22-27 minutes a game?  My money is on the guys who are used to playing those minutes.  

But I digress.  

The original point was that Boeheim never plays more than seven deep (which is false), and Boeheim won't change or adapt (which is also false). When Boeheim has the talent, he plays the talent, and when he has a small set of talented players, the rotation is smaller.

An interesting side note: back in 1977-1978, during the Louie 'n Bouie era, Syracuse went 11 players deep (10 if you don't want to count Marty Headd as a regular), and 12 players on the team had enough quality time per game they played to average 3.4 ppg or more.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Orange Are Improving

The Orange are improving, which provides me with some sense of relief.  It seemed early in the season that the team was never going to improve.  The 49th consecutive win against Colgate came rather easily, and with this team, prior to tip off, it may not have been easy. But there was nothing to worry about.

Trevor Cooney has gotten his game back on track and continues to keep himself involved in the offense as a playmaker, not just a shooter.  That type of play can only continue to help the Orange as the season progresses. It will take pressure off of Kaleb Joseph, help open up the middle of the court, and force defenders to guard Cooney honestly.

Rakeem Christmas has proven himself to be a strong inside presence this year both offensively and defensively.  The key will be how many minutes can he stay on the court without getting into foul trouble.  

The sophomore class continues to be inconsistent, but bright spots due appear. Ron Patterson had his opportunity to shine with a nice game against Colgate (13 pts on 3-6 three point shooting).  Proper perspective would remind you that it was against Colgate; however, Patterson has done very little recently and has been a healthy non-play in some of those games. So it was nice to see him get some quality time.

Chris McCullough seems to be regressing. He can definitely rebound but offensively he is really struggling, and defensively he isn't always in the right position.

The team is improving, and it will be interesting to see how much better they can get.

I am more concerned with the defense than the offense right now.  The bright side is that Jim Boeheim has found the team does reasonably well with their press defense, so there is a defensive scheme that works. The dark side is that they team is struggling with its bread-and-butter zone defense.  It seems to me that there is poor backside rotation covering the holes, and the wings are still slow at getting out on the shooters.  I am not sure that is something that can be fixed quickly in the season.  It can improve, but the key to a zone defense is everyone moving as one, and not allowing gaps to occur.  It is a very difficult defensive concept, one that takes time, and I think having only two returning starters is hampering that development.

It is good however to be going into the Christmas holiday with a recent victory.

Go Orange!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

It's Going To Be a Rough Year

Here's where the 2013-2014 Syracuse Orange are, summed up fairly well by a man who should know:
"This isn't like the last six years. We're going to struggle to win a game. We're going to struggle to win a game, any game that we play. This game is not going to beat anybody that's any good if they don't play better. That means all 18 games in the ACC. I don't care if somebody thinks, oh, they're not that good. They're good enough. Trust me. We have to play a lot better, we have to get better and we have to figure that out and we'll see. Again, I don't know, I wouldn't want to be overly-confident about that right now because we're not talking about the difficult things we'd like to try to do. We're trying to get the basic essentials down and that's not good at this stage."

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim at the Louisiana Tech post game press conference, December 14th, 2014.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Flash of GMac

For at least one night, Trevor Cooney did a very good Gerry McNamara impression.  I am not referring to his three point shooting, though he was 4 for 8 from three point range.  I am talking about how all the elements of the game against Louisiana Tech were similar to GMac.

Gerry McNamara was a terrific shooter out of Bishop Hannon High School in Scranton.  Shortly before the 2002-2003 season began, Syracuse's projected starting point guard Billy Edelin found out he was ineligible for the first 12 games of the season.  McNamara assumed that role, and became the de facto point guard for the Orangemen.

McNamara would drive to the hoop, he would get the ball into the Carmelo Anthony, and let Anthony make the play, or get himself open so that Anthony could kick it back out.  McNamara had a knack for jumping the lane and getting the necessary steals.  During the closing minutes of close games, McNamara would hold run the clock down, often forcing opposing teams to foul him so that he could got to the free throw line with his 90% accuracy and seal the game.  

Trevor Cooney played that type of game against the Bulldogs earlier today.  The 25 point effort and the four of eight three point shooting are the obvious highlights.  The three steals and the 5 of 5 from the free throw line were critical.  Cooney brought the ball up the court during most of the games crunch time, taking the pressure off of freshman Kaleb Joseph, who struggled with eight turnovers.  

Cooney had no turnovers.  He demonstrated leadership on the court, provided a steady hand, and was the vocal encouragement on the court.  

There were some mistakes in the evening for sure.  And the Orange still had to come down to the wire to win the game.

But for one night this season, I felt like I was watching Gerry McNamara on the court. And that was a nice thing.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Missing Grant

A front line of Rakeem Christmas, Jerami Grant and Chris McCullough would be quite impressive and formidable.  The Orange could have had the line up if Grant had not jumped early to the NBA last June.

That would have provided a front line with a lot of length, quickness and vertical space, perfect for Jim Boeheim's zone defense.  Grant was improving offensively last season, and with the improved offensive skills for Christmas plus the arrival of McCullough, there would have been a lot of ability to score up front.  It would get crowded at times, but I think McCullough would have been comfortable drifting a little further away from the hoop.  Plus, with the foul trouble Christmas has had each game, there definitely could never be too much depth up front.

The presence of Grant would not help the perimeter situation; with the exception of Cooney who draws a lot of defensive attention, most of the perimeter players are seeing good three point opportunities frequently.  But I think the addition of Grant on the back line would allow for more steals and force turnovers, and that would improve the fastbreak opportunities.

I had mentioned back in June that I thought it was a mistake for Grant to leave early.  I believe he left a lot of money on the table.  I would imagine that his family is not in dire financial need, as his father is former NBA player Harvey Grant.  Another year of college would have given him more time to improve his draft stock and more playing time per game to work on his skills.

An early season injury hampered Grant's start this year in the NBA.  He is healthy now, and playing for the worst team in the NBA in the Philadelphia 76'ers (and one of the worst in NBA history). He's playing 9-12 minutes a night, which isn't bad... but he could be playing 35+ minutes for Syracuse.  And again, I'll go back to my original statement... it's all about the money.  He was worth more if he stayed.

I wish I could argue that Tyler Ennis should have stayed. Without a doubt he would be helping the Orange out early this season. He would bring in another perimeter shooter, and he would run the offense, and let Kaleb Joseph mature and learn.  Ennis did tend to have a tendency to play it safe too much, and I think he missed opportunities to push the ball, but the results last year were pretty good.

Financially, Ennis made the right move. He is not getting the playing time, but he is getting the practice time.  He definitely would have improved with more playing time at Syracuse, but his draft stock wasn't going to change significantly in my opinion.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Shooting Woes

The Orange seemed stunk in a season long slump with their three point shooting, with a 20.9% accuracy for the season. The Syracuse team has not been shy about shooting beyond the arc, having taken 129 shots over the first 8 games, an average of 16 a game.  Unfortunately, they are making about 3.3 a game.

Trevor Cooney has been the lightning rod for the most criticism.  In part that is fair, as he is a junior, one of the most seasoned players on the team, and came to Syracuse with a reputation of being a perimeter shooter.  His bombing of Notre Dame last season showed he could do it when he lit up the Fighting Irish for 9 three point baskets on 12 attempts on his way to a 33 point night.  Cooney has hit only 13 of 46 attempts this season, for a success rate of 28.3%.

Cooney is, however, the best three point shooter on the team.  I am not just talking from a observation perspective.  Statistically, his 28.3% is the best on the team... and by a large margin. Here is the rest of the crew:

B.J. Johnson:   5 of 23 for 21.7%
Kaleb Joseph:   3 of 14 for 21.4%
Michael Gbinje:   3 of 21 for 14.3%
Ron Patterson:   2 of 18 for 11.1%

As a group, that foursome is 13 of 76 for 17.1%.  

All hope should not be lost.  It is highly unlikely that the Orange as a team are that bad at shooting the three, and things should come around.

Here are a list of the five worst three point shooters in Syracuse basketball history, minimum 30 attempts:

Paul Harris:  22 of 98 for 22.4%
Damone Brown:  20 of 89 for 22.5%
Elvir Ovcina:  37 of 153 for 24.2%
Louis McCroskey:   36 of 141 for 25.5%
Josh Wright:  34 of 120 for 28.3%

To give some perspective of how bad those five were as three point shooters, consider that Stephen Thompson, one of the all time great Orangemen, but a horrendous three point shooter, is only 9th worst at 30.3% (26 of 86).  So the five worst shooters are pretty bad.  

Right now, ALL five Syracuse perimeter shooters would be worse than #5 Josh Wright, and four would be worst than Paul 'I couldn't hit the broadside of a barn' Harris.  So unless Jim Boeheim coincidentally recruited the five worst shooters in Syracuse history at the same time, it is highly unlikely the shooting performance is indicative of their actual ability.

Trevor Cooney is an enigma. He is a 34% career shooter, and has been a disappointment for all three seasons, with high expectations based on Boeheim's comments about his ability.  Opposing defenses are keying on him, but even when he gets open, his shot is not falling. 

We would expect the Orange shooting to start to regress to the mean at some point. They aren't likely to ever be a great perimeter shooting team, but they should be in the 30-33% range, at a minimum. Just keep taking the shots.

Or, perhaps give walk-on Carter Sanderson more playing time (playfully said).  Sanderson is a graduate student at Syracuse, and is on the team because he still had a year of eligibility left after completing his undergraduate work at Lipscomb University.  Sanderson made 32.4% of his three point shots at Lipscomb, 55 of 170.  

Anyhow, there will be a brighter future in the team's shooting. I just hope it is sooner than later.