Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Syracuse University has had its share of great players, though the Orangemen are probably more noted for the great point guards and forwards they have had. The Orangemen have had a few great centers along the way. Arinze Onuaku, who finished his career this past season, is clearly one of the top Syracuse centers ever. But how good was he in comparison? Who was the best?

That is a tough question, for a variety of reasons. The center position has changed more than any other position over the history of the game. In the early 1900s the center was the primary focal point of the offense. He did a majority of the ball handling and playmaking, along with often being the primary scorer. Centers in this era were often the best athlete on the court, and were about 5’11 to 6’2”.

In the late 1920s the game was evolving so that ‘big men’, players at 6’3”, were in the center position. This was a necessity as there was a jump ball after every made basket in the game. By the early 1930s there were teams who had centers whose primary purpose was to win the jump ball. Syracuse’s coach Lew Andreas, was a leading proponent of eliminating the jump ball after each basket, exactly for that reason, and by 1936 they had successfully eliminate that rule.

Height was still becoming a factor for centers, but the arrival of George Mikan in the 1940s, showed the dominance of a truly talented big man, and then the emergence of giants Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell in the 1950s, changed the center position forever. Russell introduced the concept of an absolute dominating defensive force, while Chamberlain brought the unstoppable offensive machine.

The center position probably has more players than any other position that has young men with very raw, if limited skills as freshman, who develop into outstanding players by their senior year. This is due to a combination of the tall centers having to wait for their bodies to catch up to their height, as well as finding it significantly different to be a giant among teens in high school, to being a giant among peers in college. So when you evaluate the greatness of a center at college, are you evaluating how he performed over his entire career, or how he performed his last year?

I am going to evaluate centers in the context of today’s center, with all due apologies to the disservice to Joe Schwarzer and Lew Castle, two outstanding All-Americans, who were clearly the best all around basketball players on their teams. Today they would have been great guards; and their style of play even in their era would have been more similar to today’s guard than center.

I am going to ignore forwards such as Derrick Coleman, Marty Byrnes and Chuck Richards, who each played center for a season out of necessity, but are far more remembered for their outstanding forward play.

So who is in my top 10? My apologies to the following fine centers who did not make that list: Andre Hawkins, Mookie Watkins, Conrad McRae, Royce Newell, and LeRon Ellis. Ed Sonderman was the first true athletic big center at Syracuse. He was 6’6”, weighed about 210 lbs, and played from 1935-1937. He was a strong offensive force, and is considered the top Syracuse big man of the first half century. But Sonderman did not make the top 10.

At #10 is Ed Miller (1950-1952). Miller came to Syracuse as a very awkward moving 6’8” teen, and he improved steadily over his three years on varsity. Miller would be second in scoring on the team his first two years, and lead the team in scoring his senior year. He helped Syracuse get to the NIT tournament in 1950 (very prestigious at the time), and win the National College Championship Tournament in 1951. Miller would be the first Syracuse player ever to score 40 points in a game.

#9 is Jon Cincebox (1957-1959). Cincebox was an outstanding rebounder in his era, averaging 14.6 rebounds a game, and setting the school record for total rebounds, that would not be broken for 30 years until Coleman came along. Cincebox sported a crew cut, was a master of the hook shot, and helped Syracuse to the Elite Eight his sophomore season.

At #8 is Otis Hill (1994-1997). Hill was a burly center who played a rugged inside game and was foul prone his entire career. As a freshman his offensive repertoire consisted of a dunk shot. His junior season, his strong play in the middle was helpful in Syracuse reaching the Final Four, and he was second in the team in scoring behind John Wallace, even though he played only 24 minutes a game. By his senior year he had developed a nice 10 foot jump shot, and was one of the primary offensive weapons on the team.

#7 is one Dave Bing’s teammates, Rick Dean (1965-1967). Otis Hill’s style was considered reminiscent of Dean, who has played 30 years earlier. Dean was 6’6”, 230 lbs, but could still run the court in Syracuse’s up style offense of the 1960s. Dean had a nice 10 foot jumper, was a very good free throw shooter (he shot 81% his junior season, and 76% his senior). Dean would average 18 ppg and 9 rebounds his senior year.

#6 is Arinze Onuaku (2006-2010). Onuaku was huge man in the middle at 6’9”, 255 lbs, and he sported a very muscular body. Onuaku played the middle of the zone defense extremely effectively; he was not a shot blocker, but was outstanding at maintaining his position, and keeping offensive players away from the hoop. He had a severe knee injury his sophomore season, and while he would rehabilitate the knee, he would continue to have leg issues in his career that limited his playing time. Offensively, Onuaku knew his limits, and stayed within his range, never more than 5 feet from the hoop. He was extremely effective in that short range, particularly with his hook shot, and is the most accurate shooter in Syracuse history at 64.8%. The two big knocks on Onuaku was that he was the worst free throw shooter in Syracuse history (by far), and he did not always hustle back down the court defensively.

#5 is Bill Smith (1969-1971). Smith was a tempormental giant at 6’11”, who was an outstanding rebounder and scorer (12.9 rpg, 20.7 ppg). He possessed a nice 10 foot jump shot, and was extremely effective near the hoop (59.6%). He holds the Syracuse single game scoring record with 47 points, against Lafayette. I’d rate Smith higher except that the level of competition for Syracuse in his era was less than today’s, and Syracuse was 9-16 and 12-12 his first two seasons.

#4 is Danny Schayes (1978-1981). Schayes was a very good college center who had the unfortunate situation of being a year behind Roosevelt Bouie. Coach Jim Boeheim tried Schayes at forward, in an effort to get him playing time earlier in his career, but it was not a position well suited for Schayes. He was probably the most fundamentally sound big man in Syracuse history. A decent ball handler, with excellent passing skills, outstanding free throw shooting (80.6% for his career), and solid from the floor (55.4%).

#3 is Etan Thomas (1997-2000). Thomas was probably the best defensive center in Syracuse history. He was a great shot blocker, and was named the Big East Defensive player of the year twice. He developed into a solid inside scorer, making 60% of his shots. He was a solid, but not great rebounder. Thomas was also a solid ball handler, not prone to turnovers, and finished his career as Syracuse’s all time shot blocker with 424 blocked shots.

The #1 and #2 picks are very tough. The candidates are Roosevelt Bouie and Rony Seikaly, and this gets back to how do you want to evaluate them. Bouie was much better over four years, Seikaly much better his senior year.

Ultimately, I go with Bouie as #2. If Etan Thomas was not the best defensive center at Syracuse, Roosevelt Bouie surely was. Part of the famous Louie N’ Bouie show, Bouie was a star his freshman year. He was a tremendous shot blocker, and could run the court well, which made him well suited for Syracuse’s fast break offense. Bouie made a high percentage of his field goal shots (he held the record until Onuaku broke it this year), and he was a very good rebounder. When he graduated from Syracuse he was the #2 all time scorer for Syracuse (long since surpassed). Bouie and Louis Orr brought the Syracuse basketball program to National attention and to initial prominence in the Big East.

#1 goes to Rony Seikaly. Seikaly came to Syracuse as a novice to basketball, having only recently learned the game after playing years of soccer in Greece. He would redshirt one year, and even in his freshman year he was overweight, and had only one shot, a tomahawk dunk, that he did not always make. He was extremely foul prone, fouling out of 1/3 of his games. But he improved over the years. He worked himself into great shape, learned to run up and down the court on both offensive and defense, and became a terrific shot blocker. His junior season, he started to play consistently with intensity and passion, and led Syracuse to the National Championship game against Indiana. Seikaly would develop a nice 10-15 foot jump shot his senior year, and would be a dominating offense force most of the season, despite sharing the ball with Stephen Thompson, Coleman and Sherman Douglas.

I’m not going to argue with anyone if they choose Bouie as #1. Perhaps tomorrow I will too.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Coleman Declares Bankruptcy

I am sorry to hear that former Syracuse Basketball great Derrick Coleman has declared bankruptcy. Coleman was one of the best basketball players in Syracuse history, despite his lackadaisical work habits. I had always thought he would be an NBA All Time, but despite being productive in the NBA, he never reached stardom.

From all accounts, it does not appear that Coleman blew all his money on living “the high life”, though I am sure Coleman spent his share. It appears that Coleman put a lot of money into investment opportunities tied to redevelopment of the Detroit inner city area (see Kurt Helin’s story on NBCSports.com). Detroit is his home time, and it is nice to have seen him try to target efforts in that area.

I am not stating that this was a purely altruistic action by Coleman. I am sure he planned to make a nice profit out of his efforts. But the fact is that it is his hometown, other investors are not eager to revitalize the area, and he did make the effort.

I know there is going to be a ton of Coleman-bashers who insinuate that he is just another dumb jock who blew his money because of his ignorance. Just remember that there are a lot of Harvard and Yale MBA’s who also go bankrupt on their business deals. I am not claiming Coleman is an MBA caliber businessman; but he did graduate from Syracuse with a four year degree (despite the fact that he could have gone pro a year earlier), so I think there was some commitment to education from him. I think this was more a case of a guy looking at his home town with rose tinted glasses, and having his heart interfere with his decisions. It is also possible he was being duped by those who knew of this bias in his judgement.

Regardless, D.C., I wish you best of luck.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Duke Wins It

Congratulations to the Duke Blue Devils and coach Mike Krzyzewski on winning the 2010 Men’s NCAA Basketball championship. Duke has been a class program under Coach K, and continues to be one. Their 61-59 win over Butler earned Krzyzewski his 4th National Championship.

And congratulations to the Butler Bulldogs, who nearly pulled off the upset, when Gordon Hayward’s half court shot bounced off the rim as time expired. It would have been the ‘Cinderella story’ that the national media had been touting for weeks. Though Butler was not quite the true Cinderella story. Butler was the 5th seed in their region, but as I mentioned prior to the Syracuse game, Butler was not properly seeded in the tournament. They finished the regular season ranked 11th in the AP polls and 8th in the ESPN/USA Today poll, thus indicating they were likely a 2 or 3 seed.

In 2003 Syracuse was ranked 11th in the country entering the NCAA tournament with a 24-5 record. Butler finished the regular season 28-4, ranked the same as those 2003 Orangemen. Was Syracuse the Cinderella story in 2003?

Butler has only 3897 undergraduate students. Georgetown has 7092 undergraduate students. Duke University has only 6400 undergraduate students. Seton Hall, 5245 undergrads. Providence College, 3938 undergrads. Notre Dame has 8371 undergrads. Villanova, 6335 undergrads. Wake Forest, 4476 undergrads. Butler is a small school, but it is not that small of a school. This was not a tiny Milan High School (enrollment 161) versus massive Muncie (enrollment 1600).

Butler was a great story in this tournament, and they were a very good team. They were also expected to be a very good team. Butler was ranked highly in both preseason polls, #11 in the AP and #10 in the ESPN/USA Today poll. This was not a team that came out of no where; they were a team that determined to be a team to be reckoned with before the year even began. Syracuse was the team that came out of no where… they would’ve been the true Cinderella story (but of course, Syracuse is a name program, from a major conference).

Now Butler is a Mid Major team, and they did play in the Horizon League. They are ‘small’ because the BCS conferences do not want to recognize them. They were the outsiders, trying to turn over the proverbial apple cart, and show the Mid Majors could play (something we already knew, if we had been paying attention the past few years). 33 year old Butler head coach Brad Stevens is a great story.

As a Syracuse fan, it was upsetting to see Butler advance so far and come so close. Syracuse, despite its sloppy play, and missing its best interior defensive player, came very close to beating the Bulldogs, despite spotting them an 11 point lead. Clearly the Orange could have won it all. But unfortunately they did not.

You know what makes college basketball great? That a school like Butler, had the opportunity to go out onto the court, and over three weekends, had a legitimate chance to win the National Championship. It did not matter what conference they were from, what the national media thought of them. It did not matter that the NCAA committee gave them a raw deal with a lower seed than they should have had. They went out there, and came within a bounce of the ball, winning the national championship. That is something the Boise State’s of the world will never have the opportunity to do in college football. And that is a shame.