Saturday, February 16, 2008

One Big Win in a Season of Excitement

They are a very young team, and a very talented group of individuals. They seem to be able to play with any team in the country, and yet can also be extremely erratic and lose games that they have no business losing.

The 2007-08 edition of Syracuse basketball has definitely been entertaining, to say the least. A few days ago they had their most disappointing loss of the season to South Florida, basically ending any realistic change they Orange had to make the NCAA.

Today, they had probably their biggest win in two seasons, beating bitter rival #8-ranked Georgetown 77-70 before the Carrier Dome’s 64th crowd of 30,000-plus fans. Everything the Orange did not due on Wednesday, they did today. They played with intensity the whole game, protected the ball on offense, and were aggressive for the ball on defense. They played tough inside, and started the game quickly. They made all the clutch shots down the stretch.

Make no mistake, the Orange still have a long road ahead of them. I felt a couple of days ago, they needed to go 5-2 down the stretch… unless they had a win at Georgetown, where a 4-3 stretch effort may help them. Well, they beat Georgetown, and they are 1-1 so far in those seven games. Picking up three more wins is going to be very difficult. Syracuse has the talent to do it, but I still haven’t seen the consistency of effort and execution to suggest they can.

But hey, for a few days, Syracuse fans can feel very good about the Orange. They took one of the best teams in the country and beat them solidly. And the big win today should do wonders for their morale. Hopefully they can get some momentum and keep it up for a few games. A loss today would have been devastating, giving them three straight and absolutely ending any chance for NCAA post season action.

The Big East Tournament will be rough for Syracuse. They go only seven players deep… on a good night. There’s very little chance they can play four games in four nights and win them all. Jonny Flynn would be required to play 160 minutes in four days. You think the Orange are tired now?

The Big East season has been a grind on Syracuse. Donte’ Greene is shooting only 37% from the floor, and 31% from 3 point range in Big East play. This was after he shot 47% from the floor in non-conference play, and 39% from three point range. I know Greene probably thinks he is ready for the NBA, but in my opinion he’s got a lot of development to do. He could develop while sitting on the bench in the NBA for a few seasons, or take another year at Syracuse and learn more fundamentals, become a stronger defender and rebounder, and more consistent in his play.

I know it’s probably one of the best kept secrets in college basketball, but does anyone realize that Syracuse can shoot free throws? We do have Arinze Onuaku who is trying to become the next Terrence Roberts at the charity stripe. But the four guys who typically handle the ball during crunch time all shoot 70% or better from the free throw line. Flynn is a solid 78%, Jardine 77%, Harris a decent 71% and Greene 75%. None of them are Gerry McNamara… but then again, very few college players ever shoot free throws like GMac.

Good luck to the Orange in Louisville on Monday!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Work Remains To Be Done

It is the home stretch of the Big East basketball season, with Syracuse having seven conference games left. They currently are 16-8 overall, 6-5 in the conference, tied for 7th place. They are clearly on the NCAA ‘bubble’ right now, and need to build that resume for the selection committee.

I had stated earlier this year before the conference play began that I believed the Orange had to go 11-7 in conference play, 21-10 going into the conference tournament, and go at least 1-1 at Madison Square Garden to make the NCAA tournament.

That included a 6-4 start in the Big East, and a 5-3 finish. So how is Syracuse faring?

The Orange did start out 6-4 in conference play, and split with Villanova, something I thought they needed to do. They lost one game, Cincinnati, that I thought they had to win, and this is looking to be their worst loss on their schedule. They helped a little by beating both South Florida and Providence. If they could have pulled out the victory over Georgetown, they would have that ever important ‘signature win’. Now they still have to hunt for it.

I still think they need to finish 5-3 down the stretch, and that is going to be a very tough task. The are already 0-1, with the loss to UConn last Wednesday. Tonight’s win at South Florida is a ‘must win’, as is Seton Hall on March 5th. They are likely the two easiest conference games remaining on their schedule, and both are road games. Conference road games have been extremely difficult this season for Syracuse (2-3), and Big East teams in general have had a tough time on the road. So these are not going to be easy games. But Syracuse needs five more wins, these are the two most likely candidates, and a couple of road wins should definitely improve the perception of the team.

The other three wins are going to be tough to find, among the remaining five games. All five are higher in the Big East standings than Syracuse (Georgetown 1st, Notre Dame 2nd, Louisville 3rd, Pittsburgh 5th, Marquette 6th). That’s a tough group to pull five wins out of. They will get some signature wins out of that group, and no bad losses. If they can beat Georgetown (at home) next weekend, they may need only one more win out of this group. If they don’t beat Georgetown, I think they need three.

If Syracuse enters the Big East tournament with a 10-8 record in conference (4-4 down the stretch) and a 20-11 overall record, I think they will need to go 2-1 in the tournament to earn a Big East bid… unless they get a win over the Hoyas next weekend or if they meet them in the tournament and get a win there.

Here’s some other numbers to consider:

Syracuse’s current RPI is #46; that RPI will likely go up, even with losses down the stretch, as their level of competition increases. Their strength of schedule (SOS) is currently #12, something in their favor. But as I’ve always felt, you not only need to schedule tough games, but you’ve got to win them too.

The Orange are 1-6 versus teams in the top 50 RPI. That’s not a good sign for the NCAA committee. They haven’t shown they can play with the top teams yet.

Syracuse is 11-0 versus teams with RPI indexes 100+, so they have no bad losses from the RPI perspective. Cincinnati is the worst loss of the year at 73. Villanova is the second worse loss with a 64; that 64 always diminishes the value of the Syracuse ‘big win’ last weekend against the Wildcats. Virginia, a big road win early in the season, particularly because it was an out of conference big name win, has been diminished with Virginia being ranked 140, 11-12 overall. The biggest non-conference win for the Orange is St. Josephs (41)… ironically one of those teams Jim Boeheim gets criticized for scheduling.

None of the teams ahead of Syracuse has a worse record against the top 50 RPI. Then again, several teams ahead of Syracuse have bad losses (five have 2 losses against teams with 100+ RPI, and 11 have one loss against that group). These facts further stress the importance of Syracuse winning their two ‘must win’ games, and getting a few signature wins under their belt.

By the end of the regular season, Syracuse will have 12 games against the top 50 RPI teams, which will definitely be one of the highest totals in the NCAA. The Big East tournament could add a few more. If other teams slip down the stretch, the Orange could sneak in with one (or possibly two) fewer wins than I believe are needed. But that is depending on other teams determining Syracuse’s destiny, and that’s not something I’m comfortable with.

The good thing is the Orange can control their destiny. A strong finish will easily secure their place in the NCAA tournament.

Let’s go Orange!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Milestones Revisited

The Orange have played 23 games this season, roughly ¾ of their regular season schedule of 31 games. Earlier this season, I had mentioned possible milestones for players this year. We can check in and see how the Orange players are doing. At this point the Orange seem certain to have at least one Big East tournament game, and to make either the NIT or NCAA tournaments. For our purposes here, we’ll assume they’ll have four post season games, giving them 35 for the year.

Donte’ Greene is leading the freshman field in scoring, with 422 points, and 18.3 points per game. His 422 points is already the 7th best Syracuse freshman total ever, six points behind Eric Devendorf’s freshman campaign. Greene is on pace for 642 points, which would put him in second, well ahead of Lawrence Moten’s 583 points, but also well behind Carmelo Anthony’s 778 pts.

Jonny Flynn has 350 points, 15.2 ppg, to put him 8th on the all time list (right behind Greene, and 78 behind Devendorf. Flynn is on pace for 532 points, which would place him fourth on the list, ahead of Billy Owens’ 494 points, and trailing Moten.

Greene’s 18.3 points per game is currently the second best freshman average, barely ahead of Moten’s 18.2 points, and trailing Anthony’s 22.2 ppg. Greene would need to score at a pace of about 29.6 ppg in order to bring his average up to Anthony’s so that record seems safe.

Flynn’s 15.2 points per game is currently the fourth best freshman average, well behind Moten’s 18.2 ppg, and solidly ahead of Pearl Washington’s 14.4 ppg. Flynn seems likely to finish at 4th.

Flynn has 113 assists on the season, averaging 4.9 per game. He is currently seventh on the all time freshman list, trailing Owens by 6. Flynn is on pace for 171 assists, which would allow him to finish third, behind Jason Hart’s 184 and Pearl's 199. Flynn would need to increase his pace to 7.25 assists per game to challenge the Pearl’s record. Considering that Flynn’s pace has been decreasing as the season progresses, this is unlikely.

Greene has an outside shot at getting into the top 10 freshman assists. He has 43 on the season, on pace for 65. He would need 77 to catch Anthony for tenth on the list, meaning he would need to average 2.8 per game down the stretch. It is possible, though unlikely, that the Orange’s top scorer would start dishing out the ball more.

Greene currently has 172 rebounds, 20 behind Moten’s 192 for tenth place. He is on pace for 262 rebounds, which would put him at fourth, one behind Owens 263 for third, and six ahead of Dale Shackleford for fifth. Third through sixth on the list is tight, so Greene will likely fall in that range when the season is done; he is not going to catch Derrick Coleman’s 333 for third, unless he becomes extremely committed to rebounding and the Orange play more than four post season games.

Paul Harris has 202 rebounds after 23 games, and on pace for 307. For his career he now has 450 rebounds, which is good for 42nd on the all time Syracuse rebounding list. Harris is on pace to finish the season with 555 career rebounds, which would place him 32nd on the all time list. Harris is well off of Coleman’s pace as DC has 717 rebounds after his sophomore season. If Harris finishes the season with 307, that would be the fifteenth best season in school history, and the second best sophomore season (Coleman had 384).

Arinze Onuaku has 190 rebounds this season, 270 for his career. He is currently 64th all time, and looks like he will finish the season with about 369 career rebounds, which would place him around 50th.

Greene is challenging the freshman record for three point field goal percentage. Devendorf holds the record at 37.593% (50-133); Greene is currently at 37.575% (62-165), barely trailing Devo. This record is Greene’s for the taking, though Greene has been struggling in Big East competition to get clean shots from that range.

Greene has 62 three point field goals this season, and is on pace for 94. The freshman record is 85 by Gerry McNamara, the school record is 107 by McNamara. 94 would put Greene fifth on the all time single season list. His current 62 is the 20th best ever.

Rick Jackson is currently shooting 57.6% from the floor (42 of 73). If he gets at least 27 more shots and keeps that pace he’ll pass Louis Orr for the best freshman field goal percentage (56.5%). Jackson is on pace for 111 shots, so he should get enough shots; hopefully he keeps making them at this record percentage.

The best single season field goal percentage for any Syracuse player is 65.4% by Roosevelt Bouie in 1979-1980. Onuaku is currently well ahead of that at 67.2% (123 of 183). The competition continues to get tougher, and Onuaku is facing more and more double teams down low, though that has more of an effect of not letting him get shots, as opposed to reducing his shooting percentage.

Coach Jim Boeheim has 764 career wins; he is in a battle with Jim Calhoun for 10th all time. Boeheim has a conference record 297 Big East wins; he needs three more to hit 300. Syracuse has eight conference games left, though the schedule is grueling down the stretch. It seems like that Syracuse will get the three wins Boeheim needs, though it could be tough, especially with the seven man lineup the Orange have.

When Terrence Roberts graduated last season, I had hoped there would not be any player to challenge the records for worst free throw shooters. Unfortunately Onuaku wants to give it a shot. Roberts shot 56 of 133 from the charity stripe his junior year to go 42.1%. Onuaku is currently at a 45.7% clip, with 53 of 116. It would seem Onuaku will not get the record, but he is in the neighborhood. Onuaku does not yet have the required 200 career attempts, but his current pace will allow him to break Roberts' career record of 48.0%. Onuaku is currently 65 for 143 for his career, or 45.5%. As I've stated before, if you are the worst free through shooter at a school with a legacy of poor free throw shooters, you are pretty poor.