Saturday, January 26, 2008

Time to Refocus

Jonny Flynn came to Syracuse with a reputation of being a great playmaker and a great scorer, but most of all a guy who was unselfish and would work the ball to his teammates to make the team better.

Flynn has not disappointed in many areas. The offense is often running in high gear, and over the whole season Flynn is shooting well (47.5% from the floor, 35.5% from three point range), making his free throws (77.5%), and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.8 (not bad, not great).

His debut as an Orangeman was spectacular, hitting 10 of 13 shots, including six of seven from three point range, for a 28 point, 9 assist effort against Siena. He then reverted to being a true point guard taking no more than seven shots over the next four games.

However, I think a disturbing trend has started with Flynn, especially in recent Big East play. In his first seven conference games, Flynn has taken 101 shots, averaging nearly 14 ½ per game. He is scoring at a 16.7 points per game clip, his field goal shooting has dropped to 38.6%, and he is averaging 3.6 assists per game.

There are many factors at play here, so I do not necessarily want to point fingers only at Flynn. Eric Devendorf and Josh Wright leaving the team nearly coincided with the beginning of conference play. That definitely has required Flynn to generate more of the offense himself. Tougher competition on a routine basis is sure to make a difference. And a scoring slump by Donte’ Greene hurts too.

But, Flynn has not had more than 4 assists in his last five games (4, 1, 4, 4, and 2). He has had as many turnovers as assists during that time period (15). The last three games, Flynn has scored an average of 23.7 points per game, taking 57 shots (19.0 per game).

Why bring up how many points he scored as a negative? First, Flynn is supposed to make his teammates better. A point guard who does all the scoring is often a bad sign. He should step up and score when needed, but not lead the team by that large of a margin on a regular basis.

Flynn has scored 20+ points seven times this season. The Orangemen are 2-5 in those games. You could spin that positively by saying Flynn is stepping up big in the tougher games when his teammates are struggling. I think it may be more that Flynn is having problems getting the balls to his teammates in these tougher games, and is instead falling back on the easier position of taking the shots himself.

Arinze Onuaku is playing outstanding basketball since conference play has started. He has shot 39 of 58 from the floor, or 67%. He’s averaging 9.1 rebounds a game in conference games, four times with 10+. Onuaku was 5-7 against Georgetown’s Roy Hibbert, including 13 rebounds and 5 assists. He has only 10 turnovers in the seven games. He has 26 offensive rebounds.

Averaging 3.7 offensive rebounds a game is decent. However, consider Onuaku is averaging 8.2 shots a game, that means he is getting roughly 4 ½ shots a game from the regular offense (the rest are his put backs on offensive rebounds).

In the loss to Cincinnati Onuaku only had 2 shots. Despite his outstanding success in scoring from the low post, he only took 2, 9, and 7 shots in three of the losses (he did get 12 shots in the WVU game). In those same three games he had offensive rebound totals of 1, 4 and 6. That means he took 1, 5, and 1 shot in each of those games from the regular offensive scheme.

Syracuse has to do a much better job of getting Onuaku the ball in the low post. The responsibility starts with the floor general which is Flynn.

Again, I am not blaming the losses on Flynn. I am however concerned that his focus is on the wrong part of the game. He is only a freshman and has a lot of the game to learn; that is one of the values of playing college basketball for 3-4 seasons. You experience things and you learn and grow.

Donte’ Greene is struggling from the floor himself, and that does put pressure on Flynn. In the four conference losses, Greene is 24 of 56 (42.8%) and his perimeter shooting has struggled with 9 of 29 (31%). I think some stronger playmaking from Flynn may ease some of the defensive pressure off of Greene, and help him get back into the flow.

Hopefully the next two games against Providence and DePaul will let the Orange work some of these issues out. They definitely need to start winning. The team has a lot of talent, but they need a player to lead them on the court, and lacking a veteran elsewhere on the court, that job falls on the freshman point guard Jonny Flynn.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Starting from Scratch

Syracuse is now 13-7 on the season, 3-4 in the Big East. The Orangemen are talented but youthful and inexperienced, and that is showing on the court. The loss of an upperclassman on the court is slowing down the development of the squad, the need to leadership and guidance apparent in the Orange’s recent losses.

We should not be surprised by what we are seeing on the court. The Orange does have five new starters on the court, and only go eight scholarship players deep (and really, Sean Williams was never counted on for this season, so it’s realistically seven).

History has shown mixed results for the Orangemen when a season has five new starters in the lineup. It has happened five times before: 1939-1940, 1944-1945, 1945-1946, 1961-1962, and 1968-1969.

The fall of 1939 saw the Orangemen with a new starting five after the graduation of five seniors from the previous year’s squad that went 14-4. This included losing the team’s top five scorers. The fall of 1939 would see juniors Stan Kruse and Paul Kartluke in the backcourt, senior Dick Jensen and forward, and sophomores Dud Thorne and Gene Berger at forward and center. The Orangemen would struggle that season, going 10-8. Kartluke emerged as a star, leading the team with 14.4 points a game, threatening Vic Hanson’s season scoring record, and breaking Hanson’s single game scoring record with 27 points against St. Lawrence. The Orangemen struggled early that season starting out 3-5, before finishing a stronger 7-3.

The fall of 1944 saw Syracuse resume their basketball program, after suspending it one season as a result of World War II. None of the starters from the previous season played (1942-1943) were back, and Syracuse fielded a team of first year players, freshman and sophomores in college. The team could best be described as rag tag, as players continued to return to college as their service ended. Doc Acocella, who would become a star at wide receiver and shortstop, was one of the guards, while Bill Hennemuth occupied the other starting guard position. Bill Dickie was one of the forwards. Gangly ‘Long John’ Ludka, all 6’11” of him was the starting center. Ludka was extremely awkward on the court, more of an oddity than a player. Freshman Francis Miller was the best player on the team, leading the team with 156 points. The team would struggle all season long finishing at 7-12.

The fall of 1945 continued to see the program rebuilding as young men returned from the war and completed their military service. None of the starters from the previous year would be on the team in 1945, with exception of Ludka. Hennemuth and Miller both would leave school for a year of military service. Acocella would focus on football and baseball, and Ludka would lose his starting position to a more talented Royce Newell.

Several veterans had returned, with Billy Gabor now a sophomore. Gabor had led the Orangemen in scoring before he went off to war. Lew Spicer, Roy Peters and Andy Mogish were men who had seen the war, and were ‘old’ college players, in their early twenties. Royce Newell was the lone freshman in the bunch. The combination of players proved to be very successful for Coach Lew Andreas as the Orangemen went 23-4 and made the first post season appearance in school history, going to the NIT tournament. Gabor would lead all scorers with 15.4 per game, and fellow freshman Ed Stickel would provide a lot of scoring from the bench. The combination of maturity of the war veterans with the talent of these two players made a tough squad for the Orangemen.

The 1961-1962 squad was an unexpected turnover in the starting five. Three players from the 1960-1961 starting five had graduated, including the team’s leading scorer and rebounder Pete Chudy (20.8 ppg, 8.0 rebounds per game). Starting point guard Billy Conners and center Loren James were both expected to return. However both participated in YMCA games in the off season, and were ruled ineligible to play in 1961-1962. The team was struggling at 4-19 with the talent they had that year, and none of it was returning.

Sophomore Carl Vernick would be the star of the team averaging 16.5 points a game. Seniors Steve Dodge and Fred Machemer would also start, after having been role players the past few seasons. Junior Herb Foster would play forward, and undersized 6’5” Manny Klutchkowski was at center. The Orangemen were short on height and short on talent, and a 2-22 season ensued, the worst year ever on the Hill. Syracuse lost their first 22 games, before winning the last two to put some wins into their record. Coach Marc Guley announced his resignation in February, effective the end of the season.

The last time Syracuse had a complete change in the starting lineup was 1968-1969, a talented squad that somehow only went 11-14. Syracuse graduated three valuable players from the previous season. Gone was the steady ball handling and outstanding free throw shooter of Rich Cornwall, the dependable perimeter shooting of George Hicker and the outstanding rebounding and inside play of Vaughn Harper. Star sophomore guard Ernie Austin would be academically ineligible the first semester, and injured for part of the second semester. And center Wayne Ward had been arrested (and later convicted) of robbery. Making things more difficult was the resignation of head coach Fred Lewis.

In the fall of 1968 Roy Danforth would be the new head coach. Big Bill Smith (6’11”) would join the team and be the dominant player he had shown he was on the freshman team, scoring 19.0 points a game along with 11.6 rebounds. Senior Bob Kouwe, who had often missed playing time in the past for injuries, played the whole season and provided solid scoring. The back court was junior John Suder and junior college transfer Gerry McFadden, and fellow junior Bill Case was the other forward. The team would struggle to find consistency all season, and would end a disappointing 9-16.

The 2007-2008 Orangemen do have a lot of history to fight against; five new starters with Jonny Flynn, Scoop Jardine, Paul Harris, Donte’ Greene and Arinze Onuaku. Not only is it a new starting five, but a very young squad with three freshman, and Onuaku had no playing time last season due to injury (and limited playing time his freshman year). Harris is the only player with noteworthy experience, as the sixth man last year.

The Orange has shown the inconsistency that could be expected. They are absolutely a talented team. Success for this season will depend on how much they can grow as a unit. History shows us that a turnover in the starting five is not a good thing. Four of the teams struggled, and were worse than the previous season. The 1946-1947 team is the exception, but that was a rare combination of factors as mentioned earlier. To use that squad as a blueprint for building another squad would be very difficult.

I think the Orange will do fine this year, but they are currently two games behind the pace that I believe they would need to get an NCAA tournament bid. They need to start putting some big wins on their resume, along with just some wins in general.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

It could be worse

Syracuse has only 8 scholarship players right now plus two walk-ons, after Mike Williams left the team. Now Syracuse never wants to be in a position where they are required to have Jake Presutti, Justin Thomas, and Sean Williams on the court to win a game. I'm not trying to be highly critical of these three, but there is a reason why Presutti and Thomas were walk-ons at Syracuse, and Williams was going to be a healthy redshirt.

It could be worse. The Arizona Wildcat womans' team was able to have only six players available for a game at Oregon on Saturday, January 5th. The game went double overtime, and when the game finally ended, there were only two Wildcat players who had not fouled out. (See link at ESPN).

The amazing thing is Arizona had only four players left at the end of regulation. They were able to play to a tie with Oregon in the first OT despite missing one player. They had an 87-83 lead in the second OT, before they were down to two players. They inevitably loss the game with only two players left for the last 1:01 minutes.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Fast Start

The Orange are off to a nice 2-0 start in the Big East with wins over St. Johns and South Florida. These were games that Syracuse was expected to win, but no win is easy within conference play.

A solid effort from all five starters today, and a good mix of zone defense and man-to-man defense from the team. Free throw shooting as a unit continues to scare me, though the primary ball handlers Flynn and Greene have been doing well. Some balanced scoring with 8 guys in double digit scoring in two games is another positive sign, though with a shallow bench and a high scoring style of play, the starters are going to get plenty of opportunities to score.

Donte’ Greene is off to a fast start scoring in conference play with 43 points. 8 fouls in 66 minutes of play has me concerned (a 12 fouls in his last 94 minutes), along with 7 turnovers. On a team short on reserves, Syracuse needs Greene on the court as much as possible.

Arinze Onuaku has been a very pleasant surprise in the early going of conference play. 18 of 25 from the floor for 39 points, and 25 rebounds. Very nice start big guy. Syracuse has not had a dominant big center since Etan Thomas in 1999-2000.

Paul Harris has shown a nice mix of skills, with 7 assists in the St. Johns game, and 13 rebounds and 20 points in the South Florida game.

Jonny Flynn has 13 assists and 5 turnovers in the first two games. A very strong start for the freshman point guard. His backcourt mate Scoops Jardine looks like he is getting adjusted to his starting role and is providing some excellent support. 12 assists and 1 turnover in his first two Big East games; that is outstanding. Throw in nine rebounds and five steals, and Jardine is becoming a huge asset to the Orange.

The bench, all two of them, are struggling. Rick Jackson is struggling to get into the offensive flow. He showed tremendous ability earlier in the season, so a little more seasoning here should help. Kris Ongenet seems overwhelmed at his point by the more rugged play in the Big East. In his first 18 minutes of conference play he has picked up 8 personal fouls (earning a disqualification in the South Florida game with 5 fouls in 12 minutes), and he has only 1 rebound.

There is going to become a moment in the Big East season where Jackson and Ongenet are going to be counted on for some valuable productive minutes, so it is important for Syracuse to get these two guys going. Greene is walking a fine line with his foul trouble right now, and sooner or later, every player gets into some foul trouble.

It is only two games, and games against opponents that Syracuse should have beaten. It is however pleasing to see the Orange have done what they should have done; that does not always happen. Their first conference road game is at Cincinnati this Wednesday. This is another game the Orange should win, but you can ask Louisville how that goes. The Cardinals lost at home to Cincinnati in the Big East opener on January 1st, 58-57. So this will be another good test for the young Orangemen.

Go Orange!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Big East Begins - What It Will Take

Syracuse has completed its Out of Conference season at 10-3. It was not a great non-conference season, but it was not a bad one either. They did put themselves into a better position this year than at the same time last year for post season consideration.

The Orange are currently 10-3, with an RPI ranking of 15, and a Strength of Schedule ranking of 4 (hard to believe isn’t it). With roughly 60% of the season left, I wouldn’t focus too hard on those numbers, as they could change significantly as those teams play their conference games. However, it does at least give us an idea where the team is.

The three losses were against three teams in the top 25 of the RPI (Ohio State, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island). There’s nothing good about those losses, and two were on our home court, which does hurt a little. However, being losses to top 25 RPI teams does not hurt you come selection time; it just does not hurt. What will hurt is if any of those three teams start to fall apart; so Orange fans, make sure you cheer these three teams on!

The Orange have no impressive wins at this point. Virginia is the best win at #67 in the RPI. Two things about that win: the Cavaliers RPI will likely go up as the enter ACC conference play, and it was a road victory for the Orange, which will help. If Virginia does fairly well in the ACC this season, this could be a big win for the Orange come selection time. The second best win (so far) is Washington at #70. Again, their RPI will likely go up as they enter PAC TEN conference play, though not as much as Virginia. Washington was a win on a neutral court, so that will help.

The Orange won all the other games they should have won, so there are no ‘dings’ on their record.

So what do they need to do to lock themselves into a NCAA bid? I’ve run through the conference schedule and I’m showing the Orange are going to need to be 11-7 in conference play, 21-10 entering the Big East tournament, plus go at least two rounds in the BET… so 22-11 by seasons end. I do not think 20 or 21 wins is going to do it for them, unless it’s the right 20 wins.

The Big East schedule will break down into two parts for the Orange. The NCAA considers how you performed in your last 10 games, and I think Syracuse will need to be at least 6-4 in those games, two of which would be the Big East Tournament (where I’m saying they need to be 1-1). So they will need to finish out 5-3 in the Big East Conference. They’ll need to start out winning 6 of their first 10.

The Big East currently has 4 teams in the AP and the ESPN/USA Today polls. They are Georgetown (7,7), Marquette (10, 11), Pittsburgh (13, 13) and Villanova (17,16). West Virginia just dropped out of both polls, and Louisville and Notre Dame received some votes in both. Note that Syracuse is receiving no votes right now, so they are well off the radar of the voters at this point. That is something to consider; perception is reality.

In terms of RPI positioning, there are four teams in the Big East (other than Syracuse) with top 25 RPI. Those are Marquette (5), Pittsburgh (7), Georgetown (18) and West Virginia (23). Syracuse plays South Florida, Georgetown and Villanova each twice this year, so two shots at the Hoyas and Wildcats help.

Also, if Syracuse loses a game that I label a ‘must win’ because of its ease, then I believe they must win one of the tough games I indicate they could lose. You’ve got to wipe those bad losses off the resume by adding a good win.

Syracuse’s Big East schedule is weaker up front, stronger down the stretch. This does help a young Syracuse team which needs to mature, and get inaugurated into the Big East. It also means if they struggle earlier, they can still come on strong at the end and pick up a lot of impressive victories. The Orange’s first ten games are against St. Johns, South Florida, Cincinnati, West Virginia, Rutgers, Villanova, Georgetown, Providence, DePaul and Villanova (2nd time).

The only thing I do not like about the early schedule is having Villanova twice. I would have liked the Orange to have played them later in the season for the second game, so a more experienced team could have faced the Wildcats. But you’ve got to play the hand dealt, right?

Of the first ten games, four are ‘must wins’. The four easiest Big East games they should have are Cincinnati (4-7, away), St. Johns (6-5, home), DePaul (4-7, away) and Rutgers (7-5, home). That’s four wins.

I think they need to split with Villanova. Nova’s preseason schedule does not help the Orange. They played nobody, and their SOS is only 160th, yet they are ranked in both polls. Nova is a good team, a dangerous team, but their RPI (right now) will play havoc on the Orange, especially if Syracuse loses to them twice. A win against Nova is impressive. That makes five wins.

The Orange then need to win one of the following games: South Florida (h), West Virginia (a), Georgetown (a), and Providence (h). Georgetown, on January 18th, a veteran team with lots of talent, would be a very difficult win for the Orange at this point in the season. So I think a win over WVU, Providence or South Florida is more likely. If the Orange can’t split with Villanova, then they need to win two of those three games. That brings the Orange to six wins. Their season record would be 16-7 at that point.

The second part of the Big East schedule is the eight game closing stretch. There are some tough games in that bunch, with Seton Hall and South Florida the easiest of the group. The schedule goes UConn (h), South Florida (a), Georgetown (h), Louisville (a), Notre Dame (h), Pittsburgh (a), Seton Hall (a), and Marquette (h). At this point in the season, the Orange will need to do two things: finish strong (a criteria for the NCAA), and get some big wins (another criteria for the NCAA), and the schedule is set for it. The Orange will be more experienced by that point, so that should help.

I think Syracuse will need to win five of those eight games. That’s a lot to ask. But, keep in mind, that prior to entering this eight game stretch, Nova is possibly the only ‘big’ win on their resume (if they’ve pulled it off). So they need those wins. I think the Orange will need to beat Seton Hall and South Florida (both road games against solid but average teams). So they then need three wins against UConn, Georgetown, Louisville, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Marquette.

Pitt is going to be an unfair game for the Orangemen. The Panther’s playmaker (and heart) Levance Fields is out for 8-12 weeks because of a broken foot. So Pitt will likely struggle for a few weeks, and that will drop their ranking. Fields will be coming back right about a week before Syracuse plays them, and Pitt will likely get a big boost for his return, and perhaps return to their top 10 form (though their record and RPI won’t reflect it). Plus Syracuse plays Pitt down at the Pederson Center, never an easy place to play. So it will be a game that may look easier on paper than it actually is.

If the Orange pull off the 5-3 record in the last eight, then they be poised well for the Big East Tournament. The Orange will be 11-7 in regular conference play, 21-10 overall. If they win one, lose one in the Big East, they would then be 22-11.

At that point the Orange will have finished the season 6-4 in their last 10, have big wins against 4 good teams, and no bad losses on the season. I think that is a guaranteed bid to the NCAA tournament.

The Orange could make it with less, but they are risking bubble status, and the performance of how other teams do this season. If Syracuse were to go 5-5 in their first 10 Big East games, and then finish out 6-2 that would obviously work (and in fact, be much better… but that’s a tougher accomplishment). I think a 7-3 start in Big East play, with a 3-5 finish would be disastrous.

Obviously a deep run in the Big East Tournament always helps, and it eliminates the mistakes and lost opportunities made during the regular season. But I’m not going to forecast what the Orange need to do to make the NCAA by assuming they’ll make a BET run. The Orange may get some extra consideration this year from (1) the NCAA feeling they need to compensate for last year’s decision and (2) Syracuse putting a road game on their out-of-conference schedule. However, I would not count on any sympathy from an organization that has shown itself to be highly unreasonable year after year.