Sunday, February 28, 2010

34,616 Fans Can't Be Wrong

Outstanding effort by the Orange tonight. They crushed a very strong opponent in Villanova 95-77, a team poised to give the zone defense problems with their strong perimeter game and their familiarity with the Syracuse defensive style.

On a night when the top two ranked teams in the country lost, there is no doubt in my mind which team should be ranked #1 come Monday. Syracuse should leap over Purdue and have that distinction. The Orange have earned the right to bask in a #1 ranking. Look at their resume: 7-0 versus top 20 teams. 6-0 versus top 10 teams. 11-0 in road and neutral court games. 14-2 in the Big East, and 27-2 overall. A #3 RPI score that is surely to gain some strength with tonight’s win.

In my opinion, teams should be ranked by voters on what they have accomplished, not on how good you think they are, or how they will finish the season. The rankings in college basketball are ultimately meaningless, as college basketball does it right, and has a tournament that ensures that the best teams all get a shot at winning the title and in the end, we will know who is the true champion. But along the way, we do have rankings, to allow teams and fans to understand how good have they been that year. It is an honor for the players and fans to get that recognition.

I know it is hard for the media to rank Syracuse #1. They did not have them ranked in the preseason, and at that time most of the media probably couldn’t have spotted Syracuse’s top two players, Andy Rautins and Wes Johnson, in a police lineup. Syracuse does not have McDonald’s All-Americans out there this year. They do have guys who have developed themselves into outstanding college basketball players, and in at least one case, an NBA lottery pick (Johnson).

Syracuse plays a defense that confounds highly experienced NCAA coaches, so there is no doubt that most of the media does not understand it. It is not sexy. They play zone defense, and most people think of five guys packing in tight to the basket, daring the opposition to shoot over them. As the educated Syracuse fan knows, that is not how Syracuse’s zone works. Syracuse pushes the guards out, inviting guards to try to pass into the lanes where they forwards anticipate and cut off the pass. Syracuse invites the guards to drive the lane where they collapse upon them. They invite the opposing team to pass the ball to the corners where they player is promptly trapped by two Orangemen and two sidelines.

Of course a hot shooting guard can make the zone look bad. But that same hot shooting guard can make a man to man defense look equally bad too. It’s just that with the zone defense, the knee jerk reaction is that it’s the zone defense fault.

And congratulations to the Syracuse fans for a highly successful Orange Out, all 34,616 of them. A boisterous sea of Orange with the largest on-campus crowd in NCAA history showed their best to Villanova and to the national television audience. The weather did not keep them home. This was one of those rare moments, where weeks of anticipation for a big game gave big dividends.

I do not know who will end the NCAA season as the National Champion, nor for that matter who will even win the Big East Tournament coming up. I do know, however, who the #1 team in the nation is tonight, and that is a bunch of hard working guys coached by Jim Boeheim and calling Syracuse their home.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Keep on Winning: 26-2

At 26-2, the Syracuse basketball team has a school record for the best record after 28 games. As mentioned a few days ago, the Syracuse record for wins in a season is 31, set in 1986-1987. This year’s team is actually hurting its opportunity to break that record, by playing so well. The Orange have already clinched a double bye in the Big East tournament. That means they will play at most three games in the Big East Tournament. And they will not have any easy games in the BET, as the first two rounds of the tournament will remove those.

Villanova tonight will be a major test for the Orange. St. John’s will be the most winnable game left on the schedule, though no games in the Big East are ever easy. Based on how well this Orange team plays on the road, it’s possible the last game of the regular season at Louisville may be the easiest of the three games.

Syracuse could enter the NCAA tournament with a school record 32 wins, though that is unlikely. A win over Villanova tonight would lock up the Big East Regular Season title for the Orange, something they have not accomplished since 1999-2000, when they went 13-3 in conference, 26-6 overall.

They will have up to six more chances to win in the NCAA tournament. Potentially twelve games remain on the Orange’s basketball season. It will be great fun to watch and see how far they can go. As legendary Syracuse alumni Al Davis always said, ‘Just win, baby’.

For those going tonight, this is the 66th time the Carrier Dome has had a crowd of 30,000+. Syracuse is 45-22 in the first sixty seven outings.

Friday, February 19, 2010

25-2, a Hoya Sweep, and Making the Free Throws

A season sweep of the Hoyas. That’s always one of those tasks that makes for a great season. Syracuse is now 12-2, alone atop the Big East (Villanova is ½ game back at 11-2). The Orange are 25-2 overall. Syracuse has matched that mark twice before: in 1978-1979 and in 1979-1980, those two Bouie N’ Louie squads started out 25-2, before both finishing 26-4.

The Syracuse record for wins in a season is 31, set by the Douglas-Coleman-Seikaly team of 1986-1987, that went 31-7. Two other Syracuse teams won 30. The 1988-1989 squad went 30-8, while the 2002-2003 National Championship team went 30-5.

Syracuse has four regular season games left, and then at least two postseason games. They could be 28-3 or 29-2 entering the Big East Tournament, which sets them well for breaking the school record. They could falter down the stretch in the regular season, and each win will be critical for breaking this record. There won’t be an easy game in the Big East Tournament (especially since they’ll have a first round bye).

These Orangemen love to squander big leads. Yet, they show they can gel and hold on for the win. I would hope they would learn to play a solid forty minutes before the NCAA starts. At least on the bright side, they are learning to play close games.

Syracuse shot an amazing 27-30 last night, or 90% for the game. That is one reason this year's team is winning these tight contests. They do have two of the worst free throw shooters in school history on the squad with Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson. Jackson did go 4-4 last night to bring his season average over 50%, up to 51.3%. Onuaku is at 43.1%, which is well above his school record 29.8% set last year. Onuaku’s attempts are way down this year, with only 58 through 27 games, so it is not negatively impacting the Orange as much as it could.

But the team statistics can be misleading. The Orangemen are actually a decent free throw shooting bunch. Other than Jackson and Onuaku, Brandon Triche is the only other weak shooter, at 65.2%. Andy Rautins (79.4%) and Wes Johnson (78%) are very good free throw shooters, and Kris Joseph (72.7%) and Scoop Jardine (75%) are solid.

In conference play, the top shooters are even better. Rautins is an outstanding 86.5% in conference play, 45 out of 52. Wes Johnson is hitting at 82.2% (51 of 62). Joseph is 53 of 69, or 76.8%.

Andy Rautins joined the 1,000 point club last night with his last free throw of the night, giving him an even 1,000. He also surpassed Preston Shumpert and is now has the 2nd most 3 points shots made in Syracuse history with 251 (Gerry McNamara's record is safe). Despite the defenses designed to stop him, Rautins is hitting at a respectable 39.6% clip from three point range (67 of 169).

Wes Johnson leads the team in three point percentage at 41.3% (36 of 87). While he does get a few more open looks at the basket than Rautins, it is nice to have Johnson providing that extra perimeter shooting. It also helps open up things inside for himself and the big guys up front.
Syracuse does not go 10 players deep, but they do have a deep team in terms of talent. As I mentioned the other day, seven different players have scored 20+ points in a game this year. The team’s second leading scorer is Kris Joseph, who comes off the bench. The team’s leader in assists (tied with Rautins) is Scoop Jardine, who comes off the bench.

Syracuse has seven players with 200+ points. That feat has been accomplished only twice before in team history. The 2006-2007 squad had Terrence Roberts, Eric Devendorf, Andy Rautins, Josh Wright, Darryl Watkins, Demetris Nichols and Paul Harris accomplish the feat. The other squad was the 1995-1996 Final Four team with John Wallace, Jason Cipolla, Todd Burgan, Otis Hill, Lazarus Sims and J.B. Reafsnyder.

The team also has six players averaging 8+ points per game. Only five other Syracuse teams have done that. The 1954-1955 team was led by Vinnie Cohen, and also had Gary Clark, Jim Brown (yes, that Jim Brown), Jim Snyder, Manny Breland and Ron Gillespie. The 1976-1977 team had Roosevelt Bouie, Louis Orr, Dale Shackleford, Larry Kelley, Marty Byrnes and Jimmy Williams. The 1981-1982 team had Erich Santifer, Tony Bruin, Leo Rautins, Gene Waldron, Ron Payton and Sean Kerins. The 1983-1984 team had Wendell Alexis, Gene Waldron, Sean Kerins, Andre Hawkins, Pearl Washington and Rafael Addison. And last season’s squad had Jonny Flynn, Arinze Onuaku, Rick Jackson, Eric Devendorf, Andy Rautins and Paul Harris accomplish the feat.

This year’s team did have seven players with 8+ points a game, entering last night, but Scoop Jardine was shutout dropping his average just below 8. It is quite possible this balanced squad will have 7 players meet that mark by season’s end.

The team also has three guards all on pace for 100 assists. That is not unheard of; in fact Flynn, Devendorf and Rautins did it last year. But it is rare. In 1989-1990 Billy Owens, Michael Edwards and Stephen Thompson accomplished the feat. And in the preceding season 1988-1989, Sherman Douglas, Derrick Coleman and Billy Owens did it. The 1982-1983 squad had Gene Waldron, Leo Rautins and Erich Santifer each with 100+. And the first Syracuse squad to accomplish the feat was the 1974-1975 Final Four team with Jimmy Lee, Rudy Hackett and Jimmy Williams all getting 100+.

The Orangmen are 25-2, and an amazing 6-0 versus Top 20 teams this year, 5-0 versus the Top 10. They are 7-0 on the road, 10-0 in games not played at home. They currently have the #2 RPI rating in the country, and the #10 toughest Strength of Schedule (SOS) in the country.

Well done Syracuse. Well done.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Balanced Scoring

22-1. Who would have thought that possible? It is unprecedented in Syracuse basketball history, this year’s squad being the first ever to reach 23 games with only one loss.

A combination of factors have brought the Orange to this point. They are playing outstanding defense most every game. My hat off to coach Jim Boeheim for getting this year’s squad to buy into the defensive scheme. The squad doesn’t have the individual talent level as last year’s team, but they have far more guys willing to play defense and willing to play Boeheim’s defense. I think the exhibition loss to LeMoyne, where the Orange played straight man-to-man defense for the whole game may have helped convince the players; I’ve got to believe the cagey veteran Boeheim had that in mind.

It is a veteran team, in the sense that two players are in their fifth year of college basketball (Andy Rautins and Arinze Onuaku), another is in his fourth year (Wesley Johnson), and two others in their third year (Rick Jackson and Scoop Jardine). They have not played together as a unit for a long time, but they do have a lot of practice time and exposure to college basketball. And that helps.

Syracuse also has a very balanced and deep team. Boeheim is going only 7-8 players deep per game, but the talent of those 6th-8th players is excellent. Jardine could be starting for Syracuse, and Kris Joseph would likely be starting at several other programs. Mookie Jones would be a very nice starting shooting guard in other programs (he still has to learn to play some defense, and to pass the ball, to get more playing time this year).

Seven different Syracuse players have scored 20 or more points in a game this season. No other Syracuse team has ever done that. That means that on any given night, there are seven guys on the court who can not only lead the Orange in scoring, but also do it with some solid scoring. The list includes the five starters (Triche, Rautins, Jackson, Johnson, Onuaku) and the top two reserves (Jardine & Joseph). Johnson, Joseph and Jackson all have double-doubles this year (points, rebounds), also helping out up front.

There have been other Syracuse teams with six players who scored 20+. The last team to do it was 1981-1982 when Leo Rautins, Erich Santifer, Tony Bruin, Gene Waldron, Ron Payton and Sean Kerins all pulled the trick. The previous to that was the 1976-1977 squad (Boeheim’s first) with Roosevelt Bouie, Louis Orr, Jimmy Williams, Ross Kindel, Larry Kelley and Dale Shackleford all meeting that number. That team came very close, with Marty Byrnes reaching 19 points in a game.

The first Syracuse team to have six players who scored 20+ in a game was the 1967-1968 squad. Vaughn Harper, George Hicker, Wayne Ward, Ernie Austin, Richie Cornwall and Frank Hamblen all performed the feat that season. That team was beset with personnel issues (a few suspensions) and some infighting that ultimately led to a losing season.

There have been a few teams with five players who scored 20+ in a game. The last was the 2007-2008 team with Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf, Donte’ Greene, Arinze Onuaku, and Paul Harris. That team also had four players score 20+ points in one game (in a 107-100 loss to UMass on November 28, 2007).

Another notable team with five players was the National Championship team in 2002-2003 (Carmelo Anthony, Gerry McNamara, Hakim Warrick, Kueth Duany and Billy Edelin), further confirming it was not a one-man team as many erroneously tend to remember.

The golden era of Syracuse hoops, 1986-1989, had three consecutive seasons with players scoring 20+ points in a game. And there have been eleven other teams with that distinction in the Boeheim era.

The 1999-2000 squad also had five players who scored 20 in a game. Etan Thomas, Damone Brown, Ryan Blackwell, Tony Bland and Preston Shumpert . Senior point guard Jason Hart, who was certainly capable of scoring 20 points in a game (he had done it previous seasons) had a personal season high of 19.

The 1999-2000 squad is very similar to this year’s Orange squad. It was a veteran team with three seniors starting (Thomas, Blackwell and Hart), all having been starters for at least three years, and two juniors (Brown and Allen Griffin). It had a very balanced offense with five players scoring in double digits, the leader being Thomas with only 13.6 ppg. The squad was very deep with eight players playing virtually every night. One of the reserves, Griffin, had been the starting shooting guard the previous season, and Shumpert was probably the best offensive player on the team, and he came off the bench.

The squad had five different players who rotated at the guard position (Hart, Bland, Griffin, Shumpert and DeShaun Williams), whereas this year’s team has three guys sharing that position.

The 1999-2000 squad played outstanding defense. Etan Thomas would be named the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Jason Hart was an outstanding ball hawk, and Blackwell was a solid low post defender. Brown, Bland and Shumpert were all long players, ideal for the Syracuse zone defense. The team kept 22 of its opponents under 70 points; only one team scored more than 80 points and that was Louisville with 82.

That squad would start the season 19-0, and would get to as high as #4 in the polls. They would go 5-3 down the stretch in the Big East season, and would win the Big East regular season title with a 13-3 record (24-4 overall). They would unexpectedly bow out to Georgetown in the first round of the Big East Tournament, then beat Samford and #19 Kentucky in the NCAA tournament. They would play #2 ranked Michigan State, in Michigan, in the Sweet Sixteen. Syracuse would have a fourteen point lead, which the Spartans would eventually knock away at and tie the game up at 58-58 with six minutes to go. The Orangemen then collapsed, and the Spartans scored the last seventeen points of the game to win 75-58. Michigan State would go on to win the National Title. Syracuse, had them down, and let them slip away.

The 1999-2000 squad finished on a disappointing note… but clearly they were a good team, one capable of doing a lot of damage.

The Orange take on Cincinnati tomorrow at 2:00. Let’s hope they can continue their season in unchartered waters, and go to 23-1.