Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Orange and Blue Devils: The Coach Perspective

Not sure what else can be said about the end of last night's Syracuse / Duke game , or the game in general.  Instead, I thought it best to hear it from Jim Boeheim and Mike Kryzyzewski, two of the greatest coaches in college basketball today.

I transcribed portions of both of their post game press conferences from last evening.  Enjoy.

Jim Boeheim:  

I thought we played as well defensively as we played all year long and I thought the game was extremely well officiated, as well as any game we have had all year, and … don’t laugh, I do make jokes but that’s not a joke… I thought it was tremendously well officiated, three great officials.  The first half Michael Gbinije was in the same position, got in front, and the new rule is it’s a block. That is the new rule, it has been explained 100 times.  C.J. [Fair] got into his motion, I saw the replay, and the guy was moving.  That’s it. It’s as simple as that. It’s a new rule. It’s a block… and I wanted to see if I still had it in me to go out there.  I did, I got out there pretty good. I thought I was quick.  I stayed down, and I didn’t get injured, so all those things are good.   But that was the play,that was the game.  That was the game decider right there.  I would have been happy with a no call, let the players make / finish the game and see what happens, but it was a great game.  A tremendously well officiated game.  I just disagree with that last call there. That’s all.

Jeez, I’ve only been thrown out only once in my life and that was an exhibition game. I just thought that was the worst call of the year, that’s all.  I just hated to see the game decided on that call. 

You’re going to lose tight games, it’ s part of the nature of the game.  If you are in tight games … we were down six, we weren’t ahead.  We had a six point deficit and made a great move to get back into the game.

There’s not much difference between great games in this league or that league.  Both teams went at it as hard as they could, you know the whole game.  It was a tremendous basketball game just like the one in Syracuse was.  This was just a different game. But it was a great game… if in the beginning of the year I could’ve split with Mike[Kryzyzewski] I probably would have taken it without any hesitation.  But once we won in Syracuse I might not have… it’s great, two great games… games lived up to everything.   People will remember this one for 30 years ‘cuz the old coach went out there a little bit. Got a little excited.  So, they’ll always remember you for something.  Down here I think those fans will remember Jim Boeheim, down here, after that.

Mike Kryzyzewski:
Another great game.  Different from the first one because it seemed like both teams were scoring easy up at Syracuse and today it was really difficult to score.  I don’t know how either team could play any harder.  What a great environment.  I want to thank our fans, the whole … their celebration of basketball  up there [Syracuse] and our celebration of basketball here [Duke] was phenomenal.  It’s what makes our sport so good.  I mean I love the NBA to death but this is something they can’t do.  And we should always recognize that… the thing at Syracuse and here… that’s our product.  That’s our product. Genuiness, purity,  and my guys to fight like they did today, that’s their fourth game in eight days, coming after one of our worst halves of the season at North Carolina, and they played great there… I’m not knocking them.  They made us look bad.  

But to come back and play with this level of intensity was spectacular.  Just absolutely spectacular.  Our defense was really good; their defense adjusted.  What they did in their zone when we flashed , they stayed with shooters, and so up there when we flashed they collapsed a little bit and you  could kick out and you have a shot. They stayed with shooters today, and so that’s why we , what turned out to be a good move, putting Rodney [Hood] there, and what that did was then he could run offense in there a little bit, not great, but better, and Rodney, that part of the game was amazing.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

24-0, 24 hours later

As the Orange faithful and most NCAA basketball fans are aware, the Orange are now 24-0 after beating Pitt 58-56 on Tyler Ennis' 35 foot buzzer beater last night.  Simply amazing... but as this season has gone, we cannot say it is unexpected.  We have seen the Orange comeback and pull out victory after victory in close games this year.

I had circled the Pitt game on the calendar as where I thought our winning streak would end.  Pitt is incredibly tough to play at home, even if they had struggled recently.  Pitt has been extremely tough against the Orange under Jamie Dixon, with the Orange only 5-10 against him going into last night.  The odds makers had #1 Syracuse, at 23-0, as the slight underdog to #25 ranked Pitt.  That says a lot about how tough it is to win at Pitt.

But once again, the Orange played shutdown defense during the crunch time, and they made all the baskets they needed to make.  Tyler Ennis is superman down the stretch, something I discussed in detail a couple of weeks ago.  He just ramped up his game a few more notches to show us he could do a little bit more.  Now Ennis has joined the club of players like Jimmy Lee, Gerry McNamara, John Wallace, and Pearl Washington, with a buzzer beating shot.

Ennis made this 35 footer to win the game. He of course added 2 made free throws in the previous possession to tie the game up, before Pitt once again took the lead.  Ennis' stature in close games is becoming mythical, as the ESPN graphic from below shows.
Ennis has one blemish during these minutes of play, a simple missed field. Overall he is 8 of 9 from the floor, including one three point basket (from 35 feet nevertheless!), and 14 of 14 from the free throw line. He is flawless as the floor general with six assists and no turnovers.

It was not all Ennis last night.  Syracuse was down by 6 points with less than two minutes to play in the game.  C.J. Fair made a clutch three point shot to make it a three point game, and a short time later may a two point shot to bring the game within one.  The last play of the game was actually designed to go to Fair. Pitt had defensively prepared for that, and so the second choice was Ennis, and he came through.

I have seen my fair share of memorable Syracuse games over the years and several fantastic finishes. I have no idea where to rank this one, but it will remain in that discussion for one of the best.  If you put it into context, extending the unblemished season to 24-0, and extending the school record for consecutive wins, and doing it on a hostile court, that makes it quite impressive.  Some of the other memorable finishes include Big East tournament and NCAA tournament games, and some are games I attended in  person, so I may not place this game ahead of those.  But it was a wonderful night.

Jim Boeheim and Syracuse have now beaten Pitt three straight times, and four of the past five meetings.  You have got to wonder when the Syracuse/Pitt game might kick itself up a notch and become a real rivalry. I know many Syracuse fans, myself included, do not quite get that same vibe with Pitt as we do with UConn or Georgetown, or with Villanova or St. John's.  I think part of that is that Syracuse and Pitt only met 5 times in the Big East tournament in 33 years of Big East Conference play.  

But consider that Syracuse and Pitt have now met 104 times, the fourth most games in a Syracuse basketball rivalry.  Geographically, Pitt and Boston College are the closest physical opponents in ACC play.  The games are almost always meaningful; they were the two winningest programs in the Big East the past 10 years.  Pitt has played 8 games at the Dome in front of 30,000+ fans; only Georgetown has done it more.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

We Are #1

The Syracuse Orange are now the unanimous #1 ranked team in college basketball, following the weekend where they beat Duke in a thrilling overtime game, and former #1 Arizona lost to California.  Many fans, and particularly the media, will say this is meaningless.

I disagree.

College basketball, for me, has always been about the journey.  It is about the thrill and excitement of each game.  It is about how the team grows and develops, and how specific players grow into their roles.  It is about the ebb and flow of the season.

The #1 ranking is something to be proud of.  It is an accomplishment; it is not the ultimate accomplishment, but it is nevertheless a goal to achieve.  The players and coaches work hard for every game, and the #1 ranking gives them, and the fans, a good benchmark for what they have achieved so far.

The post season is important, and it is what you build the season towards.  However, I am not a believer that it is National Championship or bust.  For me, it is about being the best that you can be.  I am not disappointed about an overachieving team losing a game and ending their season; I am disappointed about a team that I had high expectations for bowing out very early in the postseason.

I hold a high importance on winning conference regular season championships.  I think it is great to be the best team over a prolonged period of time. I also enjoy it when the team wins the conference tournament.  A good run with exciting play in the NCAA tournament is a lot of fun. 

I was not disappointed with the 1986-1987 team that lost to Indiana on the Keith Smart shot.  That team shook off a lot of demons for the program, allowing the team to advance far into the tournament.  Making it to the championship was surreal; the fact they came within a shot of winning it all was unbelievable.  It was heartbreaking when they lost, and it wasn’t until the 2003 championship that the heartbreak was totally gone. But I have never considered the 1986-1987 season disappointing.

The same with the 1995-1996 season.  That was a proud moment, not a disappointment.

The game is about the moments.  The 2003 National Championship was a great feeling, and a fantastic moment, particularly the Hakim Warrick block.  It was a culmination of 24 years of being a Syracuse fan, and having it all pay off with a win. Very tough to explain that feeling, but a wonderful one.

It is not my only great memory from Syracuse basketball.  Syracuse beating North Carolina in the Elite Eight in 1987 is very high on my list.  Other NCAA memorable games include Syracuse beating Georgia in the 1996 NCAA tournament, and Syracuse beating Texas in the 2003 Final Four.

I have memories from games I attended in person.  The Syracuse – Georgetown game in 1990 when the Orangemen overcome a large deficit to beat the Hoyas in overtime in front of a then record crowd at the Dome remains a top memory for me.  Pearl Washington hitting the half-court shot to beat Boston College in 1984.  Gene Waldron bombing Iona with 40 points in the Carrier Classic in 1983.  Sherman Douglass setting the all-time assist record and SU scoring record in 1989 versus UConn.

Big games such as the Duke / Syracuse game last weekend are what it is all about. That game was fantastic, and it will remain fantastic, regardless of how the season plays out.

The Big East tournament has brought many great memories. Far too many to mention them all.  Pearl Washington versus Patrick Ewing and the Hoyas in the early 80s.  Gerry McNamara carrying the Orange on his back his senior season with perhaps the greatest single MVP performance in Big East history. 
The greatest moment for me is the Syracuse / UConn six overtime game in 2009 is at the top.  That game wasn’t for a National Championship, and it wasn’t even for the Big East Championship. The game was just a quarter final game in the tournament.  Yet it was everything I love about college basketball, with two teams playing their heart out, tremendous skill being shown.

Regardless how the 2013-2014 season ends, it will likely end as a great memory to me.  They have overachieved in so many ways right now. It is rightful to hope for a National Championship, because this team can win one.  However, I don’t think it would be a great disappointment to me if they do not win it.  It will be a disappointment to me if they don’t play well in the NCAA tournament, but if they lose to a team that outplayed them , so be it. 

Right now the Orange are ranked #1, and that is something I am enjoying.  That enjoyment does not disappear because next game, or next week, or next month, they lose a game.  Today's moment is today's moment, and that is what is important. I will worry about tomorrow's moment when it presents itself.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

The Orange Beat Duke

The Orange are at 21-0, uncharted waters for the Syracuse basketball squad. They should also move up to #1 in the nation come Monday night, following #1 Arizona’s loss to California on Saturday night. 

The Syracuse / Duke game at the Dome on Saturday night was college basketball at its finest. Two well coached teams playing in front of an extremely hyped NCAA record crowd, in a tight well-played game. The two winningest coaches in men’s Division I history, with teams with collegiate All Americans, McDonald’s All-Americans, and highly touted freshman. Both teams committed only eight turnovers each in the game, and only a combined two in the second half. There was well executed offense and well executed defense. Add in a dash of the game being the first game between Syracuse and Duke in ACC conference play, and throw in a dramatic three point basket to send the game into overtime, and you have a great game. 

Both teams played very well. Here’s some of the numbers for Duke: 15 of 36 from three point range (41%); 18 offensive rebounds; 20 assists and only 8 turnovers; 89 total points; the opponent was held to only 3 three point field goals. If you told Mike Krzyzewski his Blue Devils would post those numbers, I am sure he would have felt his team won the game. And Syracuse Jim Boeheim would have been concerned about those numbers. 

Syracuse, however, had some impressive numbers of its own. The Orange shot 57% from the floor, had only 8 turnovers, a +5 rebound margin, only 8 turnovers, 9 blocked shots, and an impressive 26 – 32 from the free throw line. Those types of numbers will win most games. It was an interesting game. Krzyzewski’s game plan seemed to recognize that the Blue Devils would not be able to beat the Orange on the inside, and he was committed to working the three point offense. Duke ran that offense well, though it was surprising they did not challenge the Orange more inside. Then again, when you successful from the perimeter, and unsuccessful inside, it is alluring to keep going outside. I think Amile Jefferson was outstanding at cleaning up Duke’s perimeter misses, especially in the first half. Duke did struggle inside when it did try to run its offense there. A tip of the hat to the Orange who were smothering inside on their defense. Whenever Duke thought they had an open opportunity, the Orange (primarily Rakeem Christmas) were there to block or alter the shot. 

Defensively, Duke had problems all day with the Orange inside. Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson both picked up 4 fouls costing them valuable playing time in the second half, and both ultimately fouled out. And when Jefferson or Parker were not on the court, C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant had a field day. Krzyzewski was stuck in a hard place; Jabari Parker likely faced the toughest front court he’s seen, and struggled with it. In three weeks, the rematch should be interesting, as both teams do have areas they can improve upon, and they have adjustments they can make. 

The Orange are playing at a very high level right now. The win against Duke was a combination of all five starters playing well, and the bench contributing enough to let most the starters get some rest. C.J. Fair had a career high 28 points, and proved he was worthy of Naismith consideration. When the Orange needed him to score, he scored. He recognized and took advantage of the defensive mismatches when he saw them. A brilliant game. 

Jerami Grant just continued to keep his stock rising. He had an outstanding day on the boards, with a total of 12 rebounds, and Duke was hard pressed to stop the long limbed explosive leaper. They fouled him several times, and Grant made them pay for every single foul by making 10 out of 10 free throw attempts. I was concerned when he picked up his third foul early in the second half, but he played smart and did not pick up another. 

Rakeem Christmas was a difference maker in the game. He showed up and was aggressive on both ends of the court. Defensively he shut down the Blue Devils with 6 blocked shots and two steals. On the offensive end of the court he made 2 out of 4 shots, and had four offensive rebounds. Baye Keita and Christmas, the two headed monster, had 9 points, 6 blocked shots and 16 rebounds in 45 minutes of play. That type of contribution from our center position will go a long way in winning games. 

Trevor Cooney was shadowed all night and had a tough time getting open for three point attempts. No problem for Cooney as he mixed up his game and drove the lane for layups, and pulled up for mid range jumpers. Twice in the game he had a chance for a three and twice he nailed it. Cooney also is displaying more confidence with his ball handling and provided Ennis relief on the full court presses from Duke. 

Tyler Ennis played like Ennis does every game. Flawlessly running the offense with 9 assists and only 2 turnovers. He threw Duke for a loop when he decided to score himself, rather than work the ball, and I am sure that helped to loosen the defense up on the inside for the rest of the game. 

Michael Gbinije had 12 minutes of solid basketball where he provided some good defense and three assists. Tyler Roberson had five minutes of time in the first half where he presented himself well. He had a nice drive along the baseline which drew the defense to him, and finished off a fast break with an impressive dunk.

You know it was a great game when Jim Boeheim flashed a big smile after Duke's Rasheed Sulaimon drained the 3 point shot as time expired, sending the game into overtime.  It was an epic game and Boeheim realized it. He had coached 1,255 games at Syracuse, and he knew this one was a special one.

Ennis Down the Stretch

Twenty one games into the season, and the Orange are 21-0.  Syracuse fans have gone through their share of nail biter games, and Syracuse's exciting 91-89 overtime win against Duke was no exception.

I think the Orange faithful have gotten to the point that we feel the Orange will win any close game down the stretch. It surely seems that way, and of course, they have so far this year.  We feel like Tyler Ennis is Superman down the stretch.  Again, the evidence of the wins would suggest that is correct.

ESPN has some stats about how well Ennis has done the stretch this year. As good as he has seemed to be, the statistics indicate he is even better than that.  Against Duke yesterday, starting with 5:00 minutes left in the second half, Ennis had 3 assists, 0 turnovers, and scored 8 points on shooting one from one from the floor and 6-6 from the free throw line. 

One the season, during the last five minutes of the game, Ennis is shoots 50% from the floor, has 17 assists and 0 turnovers.  To make those statistics even more impressive, you should realize that Ennis only plays the last five minutes of close games; so those stats are during crunch time. When the game is under control, Ennis typically would not be on the court at that time.

Furthermore, ESPN points out that if you took Ennis' production from the last five minutes of the game, and projected it to a 40 minute game, he would average 28.3 points per game, with 7.5 assists per game, and the Orange would have a scoring margin of +23.5.

Five games this season, Syracuse has been trailing at the last five minute mark of the game.  In those five games, they have outscored their opponent by 37 points (7.4 per game).

I know that Ennis is a freshman, and he will make mistakes.  Nobody is perfect.  But so far, he is playing close to it during crunch time.