Sunday, January 25, 2015

Free Throws Do Matter (Again)

It was a shame to watch the Orange fight back gallantly against the Hurricanes yesterday, and see them fall up short.   The Orange played hard, and they never gave up despite two prolonged scoreless stretches in each half that let Miami pull out ahead.

The shame was the poor free throw shooting by the Syracuse players. This issue has been a thorn in the Orange side for years; it seems the Orange are having a collective freeze on their free throw shooting right now.  The Orange hit only 8 of 19 free throws against the Hurricanes, missing the front end of some crucial one-and-ones, and missing some critical free throws in the last couple of minutes that would have allowed them to win the game.  The Orange made some clutch jump shots, some clutch rebounding (thanks Tyler Roberson!), and some nice defensive stops.  But they have to make some of their free throws.

Michael Gbinije is the worst culprit. Yesterday's loss dropped his season average to 48.9% (23 for 47).  Gbinije was not terrific before this year, but 64.6% last season was bearable.  He is now 11-23 in conference play.  For a player that Jim Boeheim wants to be running the offense in clutch moments, that is just not tolerable.  You can see that Gbinije is a total mess right now, with different forms on his free throw attempts each time to the line.

Trevor Cooney is a terrific free throw shooter.  Yet, he is in a funk in conference play making only 21 of 34 free throws for 61.8%.  Several of his misses over the past few games have been in crunch time.

Rakeem Christmas had been a rock and clutch player at the charity stripe. Yesterday, he bombed making only 5 of 11 attempts. 

Ron Patterson has not shot much in his career. He does not give much glimmer of hope as he has made only 2 of 8 attempts for the season.  At least Patterson does have the humorous quote of the season mentioning earlier in the year that his free throws were 'close'.

By comparison, Tyler Roberson is shooting well from the line. In conference play, he has made 71.4% of his shots, hitting 10 of 14 attempts.

A dilemma for Boeheim could be what to do with Kaleb Joseph.  His play has improved during the game, and his turnovers have cut down, but he was very rocky earlier this year when under pressure.  Joseph, however, has made 16 of 19 free throw attempts in conference play, for 84.2%.   He  has not shown the ability to shoot from the perimeter, and defenses are leaving him wide open.  He still makes big mistakes on defensive positioning.  But he has been making his free throws.  

I have got to imagine that Boeheim rides Cooney and Christmas down the stretch of games, hoping they can revert to form, and he keeps the ball out of Gbinije's hands during obvious fouling situations.  I'm not sure he wants to give up all the positives that Gbinije brings during crunch time to give some time to Joseph, but it will be something he is surely evaluating.

Also noteworthy in the game was that Syracuse played only six players during the contest.  Four of those players (Christmas, Roberson, Cooney and Gbinije) played the entire game.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Elusive Triple Double

Triple Doubles are a rare commodity in college basketball.  There have only been nine triple doubles recorded in Syracuse Orange history; the last one occurred 14 seasons ago when Allen Griffin accomplished it against Pitt with 14 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists.  Lazarus Sims, Derrick Coleman, Leo Rautins (3 times) and Dave Bing (3 times) are the only other Orangemen to accomplish the feat.  

Michael Carter-Williams was the perfect type of player to get a triple double.  A tall point guard who liked to drive the lane, and was strong at offensive rebounding.  It seemed destined he would complete the feat after some near misses, but he never did.  The other style of player to get a triple double is a forward who is adept at passing  (ala Leo Rautins), but the Orange have not had a player of that style for a while.

Michael Gbinije
Michael Gbinije
Michael Gbinije might be able to get the triple double, if the stars align correctly.  Gbinije is Syracuse's starting small forward, but he spends a lot of time running the offense at the point.  In two of the last three games, Gbinije has had double digit rebounding efforts.  The Wake Forest game is the closest he has come to a triple double when he had 11 rebounds, 7 assists and 17 points.  

Gbinije's career high in assists is 8, which he did against Long Beach State earlier this year. He had 6 rebounds and 24 points in that game.

10 assists will be tough for Gbinije to get. Syracuse is not a high scoring team, and therefore there is a smaller potential for assists to begin with.   If he had a good night of feeding Trevor Cooney and Rakeem Christmas, and they both had big scoring nights, that could help him a lot. But right now there really are only three scoring threats on the Orange: Cooney, Christmas, and Gbinije, and Gbinije cannot get an assist to himself.  A big game by Tyler Roberson or another Orange player would help.

Gbinije is more likely to get 5-6 rebounds in a game than 10, but he does have that potential.

I do not think he will accomplish the feat.  He does get the playing time, but I think the assists will be out of his reach.  But I will be rooting for him to do it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Bill Smith Nets 47

44 years ago today, on January 14th, 1971, Bill Smith set the Syracuse single game scoring record with 47 points against Lafayette.  The closest any Orangeman has come to breaking that record was when Gerry McNamara lit up Brigham Young for 43 points in the 2004 NCAA tournament.

Bill Smith Syracuse Orangemen
Bill Smith
Smith was a fiery tempered center who once punched a referee.  He was an excellent rebounder and a terrific inside scorer. At 6'11" he was the biggest center Syracuse had up to that point in time.  Smith would average 20.9 points and 14.5 rebounds per game for his career.  

On January 12th, 1971 he had 28 points and 30 rebounds in a victory over American University. That was only the appetizer to his big night.  Two days later, Smith would score 47 points in a 106-92 win over Lafayette.  

It was a shootout of the big scorers for both teams. Tracy Tripucka, brother of NBA star Kelly Tripucka, would score 41 points for Lafayette.  Smith would have 27 points at halftime; Tripucka 26.

But the spoils would go to Smith who shot 17 of 23 from the floor, and 13 of 19 from the free throw line.  Smith would also have 19 rebounds in the contest.  

Greg Kohls also had a big night for the Orangemen with 24 points, but all accolades on that evening go to Mr. Smith.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Christmas Comes Up Big

Rakeem Christmas had a career night against Wake Forest, leading Syracuse to a 86-83 overtime win over the Demon Deacons.  Christmas scored 35 points and had 9 rebounds for the game.

Christmas simply overwhelmed Wake Forest for most of the game, on both sides of the court. Though he ended up with only one blocked shot, he altered several other shots by Wake Forest.  Offensively, the Demon Deacons just could not match up to Christmas as he made 12 of 23 shots.

Rakeem Christmas - Syracuse Orange
Rakeem Christmas
Christmas' 35 points were the most points by an Syracuse player since James Southerland scored 35 against Arkansas in November 2012.  This was the best scoring effort by a Syracuse inside big man since Hakim Warrick scored 36 points back in 2005.  The last Syracuse center to score over 30 points in a game was Otis Hill back in 1997 with 34 points against Alabama.  The last Syracuse center to score 35 or more points in a game was Bill Smith, back in 1971, when he set the school record with 47 points in a game.

Christmas had four fouls with about six minutes to go in regulation, and he managed to stay in the remainder of the game and all of the overtime period.  He gave up the defensive baskets rather than foul out, and that was crucial as he was the Orange's best scoring threat from the field and from the free throw line.  

It will be interesting to see how this season plays out for Christmas.  He continues to amaze me each night with the immense improvement in his game. He is so much more fluid offensively than in the past, and is extremely aggressive around the hoop.  The fact that he consistently faces a double team just makes it more amazing.

Monday, January 12, 2015

McCullough Out

On a night when Trevor Cooney blistered Florida State for 28 points and the Orange moved to 3-0 in ACC, there was not too much joy as freshman Chris McCullough injured his knee.

News today is the McCullough has torn his ACL and will miss the rest of this season.

The Orange will move on without McCullough, and all is not loss, as basketball is a team game. But this is highly damaging for a team already thin in the front line.

DuJuan Coleman is out for the entire year, and Chino Obokoh is the only reserve 'big' man the Orange have.  

The Orange need Rakeem Christmas to continue to play aggressive, but when he gets winded or in foul trouble, it will be tough to replace him.  Obokoh had four fouls in the Florida State game in just over five minutes of play, so you have got to believe he has a lot of work cut out for him.

Tyler Roberson can help replace McCullough, and Roberson is more of a natural power forward, so this should help Roberson.  But you do not replace 6'10" athletic players easily and that is what McCullough brought to the court.  He may have been struggling, but he was still a factor on the court.  
B.J. Johnson is going to need to come back from purgatory, and start to play.  He was rebounding well earlier in the season, but his shooting was horrendous and his defensive play in the zone was lacking.  Jim Boeheim will play a player who plays defense but is struggling offensively, but he does not like to play a guy who creates a problem in the zone defense.   

The Orange are going to need Johnson and Obokoh to start to develop.  The perimeter with Cooney, Mike Gbinije, Kaleb Joseph and Ron Patterson will be fine.  And Christmas is playing like an All-American. Let's see which Orangeman will help him out.

The timing for when McCullough can return next year will be interesting.  Conventional timing indicates it takes about a year for a repaired ACL to heal.  Some players do have a faster time line.  Andy Rautins tore his ACL, and missed an entire season.  The upside for Rautins was that he hit the gym hard, added twenty pounds of muscle, and came back a much stronger and better player.  Hopefully McCullough's surgery goes well, and he can have the same success Rautins had with his rehab.

Friday, January 09, 2015

The Most Improved Senior

Conference play has just begun for Syracuse, so there is still a long way to go in the season.  However, at this point in time, Rakeem Christmas has made an amazing jump in his performance from his junior year to his senior year.  This is causing a lot of discussion among Syracuse fans on whether this is the best increase between a junior and senior season.

In 2013-2014, Christmas  averaged  5.8 ppg, and often was pulled early in the game by a frustrated JimBoeheim. In 2014-2015, Christmas is the focal point of the offense, and is scoring 17.3 ppg.  Not only is his production up, but he seems to move with more grace and ease on the court, shows a wider variety of moves, and a more aggressive style. There are still weaknesses to his game, and the tough part of the schedule is still a month away, but Christmas has definitely made huge strides.

How does Christmas compare to other seniors who made great strides their senior year? Chronologically…

In 1919-1920, forward Nick Paul led the Orangemen in scoring with 13.5 ppg, and was the team’s designated free throw shooter. Paul was 8.5 ppg better than runner up Ken Lavin.  He led the team to a 15-3 record.  As a junior Paul played in only four games and scored 10 points.   A rather remarkable performance for a man who had played only 5 games in his career prior to his senior year.  Syracuse won its last 13 games of the season, and Paul was the leading scorer in each game.

In 1951-1952, guard Bucky Roche was second in scoring on the team with 14.0 ppg.  His junior year he had scored 4.6 ppg.  Roche’s highlight of the season was a 35 point game in a tight win over rival Cornell.

In 1968-1969, forward Bob Kouwe was second in scoring with 14.0 ppg, and had 6.5 rebounds per game.  He had only 4.0 ppg and 2.8 rpg in a junior season that was cut short by a team suspension.  Kouwe would have a career high 27 points in a one point win over rival Colgate.

In 1980-1981, center Danny Schayes led the Orangemen in scoring and rebounding with 14.6 ppg and 8.3 rpg.  He shot 82% from the free throw line and 58% from the floor.  He had only 5.9 ppg and 4.5 rpg his junior year.  Schayes had always been a fundamentally sound player, but he was stuck behind Roosevelt Bouie for three years.  Boeheim tried a twin tower approach with Schayes and Bouie both on the court, but that did not work well as neither player was suited for the forward position.

In 1986-1987, guard Greg Monroe would increase his scoring from 4.6 ppg to 12.9 ppg, along with doubling his rebounding and assist efforts.  Monroe could always play, but he lacked the playing time being stuck behind Pearl Washington and Rafael Addison.  The unknown that Monroe brought to the game was his three point shooting. This was the first season of three point shooting in the NCAA, and Monroe proved to be very good at it, hitting 43.9% of his shots. That, along with his senior leadership, was a great factor in allowing the Orangemen to make a run at the National Championship.

In 1995-1996, point guard Lazarus Sims would develop into a fantastic playmaker, averaging 7.4 assists per game, along with 3.7 rpg. He wasn’t counted on to score, averaging only 6.3 ppg, but he shot well enough (36% from three point range and 75% from the free throw line) to keep teams honest.  Sims would help guide the Orangemen to the National Championship game against Kentucky, and his playmaking was the second biggest factor behind big John Wallace.  Sims only played 441 minutes his junior year, averaging 2.6 apg, 1.4 rpg, and 3.0 ppg, as he sat behind Michael Lloyd and Lawrence Moten.

In 2000-2001 point guard Allen Griffin would dwarf his junior year statistics.  He had 10.8 ppg, 6.5 apg, and 3.3 rpg, versus 3.0 ppg, 1.7 apg, and 1.1 rpg.  However, Griffin’s career was strange, as he was a healthy but seldom used junior player who was stuck behind guards Jason Hart, Tony Bland, DeShaun Williams and swingman Preston Shumpert.  As a sophomore, Griffin had been a starter and had a decent season, so while his senior year was a huge leap from his junior, it was not a huge leap from his sophomore.  Griffin did have to huge games his senior year; he recorded a triple double in a win over Pitt, and the next game he would score 31 points in a 2 point win over St. John’s.

In 2006-2007, forward Demetris Nichols went from having a good junior year to an excellent senior year.  Nichols had 13.3 ppg as a junior, but he rose that to 18.9 ppg as a senior.   Nicholas became more efficient as he improved his shooting touch, and was more prolific. He increased his three point shooting from 36% to 42%, and his free throw shooting from 68% to 85%. Nichols would score 37 points and have 10 rebounds in a two point win over St. Johns.

In 2010-2011, forward Rick Jackson made significant strides in his play, even if the statistical numbers weren’t as strong as some other candidates.  Jackson increased his scoring from 9.7 ppg to 13.1 ppg, and his rebounds from 7.0 rpg to 10.3 ppg.  Defensively he became the Big East Defensive Player of the Year.  He was far more consistent offensively, as opposed to his junior season where he often disappeared. 

If I were to choose a player, prior to this season, I would have to go with Lazarus Sims.  I did not see the first three players I mentioned, and statistically speaking, Nick Paul had the best improvement of any Syracuse player ever, especially in the context of his era.  But I did not see him play.

Sims ran the offense spectacularly his senior year, and with his size was a strong defensive presence at the top of the key.  This from a player that almost transferred earlier in his career, and a player that Jim Boeheim was shaky enough about that he recruited a junior college player (Lloyd) to play the point instead.  The fact that Syracuse went to the national championship game speaks a lot about Sims improvement.

Many of the players listed above may not have benefited from significant improvement in their play, but rather from finally getting the opportunity to play. That is always tough to tell. Christmas is a little bit clearer because he has been given the opportunity to play, and never took hold of it.  He has been a starter his whole career, but has also been the victim of many quick hooks.

If Christmas keeps up his pace, and the Orange make some noise in the post season, I would be apt to make him the most improved senior ever.  We will have to see how it plays out.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

It's a Win but Yuck

The good news is the Orange won today 68-66 to get themselves to 10-4 and 1-0 in the ACC.  The bad news is they blew a nineteen point lead, and could not seal the win with their free throw shooting.

Syracuse led by nine points, 62-51, with 2:22 left to play.  They would go to the free throw line sixteen times from that point on, and would make only six of them.  Those ten missed free throws almost cost the Orange the game.  

We cannot even pin the poor free throw shooting on one player; this was truly a team effort:

Ron Patterson, 2-6
Michael Gbinije, 1-4
Tyler Roberson, 1-2
Trevor Cooney, 1-2
Rakeem Christmas, 1-2

In that same time period, the Hokies made three 3-point baskets, two 2-point jumpers and a layup for 15 points.  The Hokies had a chance to win the game with a last second three point basket, but fortunately for the Orange that the Hokies had to rush the shot and the Orange played good defense on the play.

But, it was a win, a road win at that. And a win is a win.

As an interesting note of trivia:  Ron Patterson played 183 minutes of collegiate basketball, and was in his 22 game, before he made his first free throw.  

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Non-Conference Rankings

Syracuse has completed its non-conference schedule with a record of 9-4.  They have eighteen ACC conference games coming up to help build their resume for the NCAA, along with the ACC tournament games.  The Orange will have their work cut out for them, and will have the opportunities to do so.

The ACC currently has five teams in the AP Top 25:  #2 Duke, #3 Virginia, #5 Louisville, #14 Notre Dame and #19 North Carolina.  Syracuse will play Duke twice, and each of the other teams once, so as it stands rights now they have six opportunities to beat ranked team.  That will likely change as the season progresses, as teams move up and down the rankings, but it gives a good starting point.

The initial part of the ACC schedule for Syracuse is a favorable one, and the Orange will need to take advantage of it because the back end of their schedule is murderous.  Syracuse plays its first seven ACC games against non-ranked teams, and four of those are at home. The last seven games of their ACC schedule has them playing five games against teams ranked 14 or higher, including Duke twice. 

Syracuse’s 9-4 non-conference record is not going to help them, but it is not going to hurt them too much. They did not have any terrible losses on their schedule, with all four wins being against major conference schools. has Villanova at #6, St. Johns at #23, California at #72 and Michigan at #74.  Iowa gets credit for being an impressive win as it is a team from a major conference and KenPom has them rated #33, but none of the other wins are notable.

A 9-4 non-conference record is the 2nd worst record since Syracuse joined a conference in 1979-1980.  In 1981-1982, the Orangemen were 8-4 with non-conference losses to unranked St. Josephs, Fordham, Ohio State and #4 ranked DePaul.  This was the team led by triumvirate of Leo Rautins, Erich Santifer and Tony Bruin, and the team finished 7-7 in the Big East, 16-13 overall with an NIT bid.  Not a good sign for this year’s team.

The Orange have been playing much better since their loss to St. John’s.  Trevor Cooney has found his shooting touch and diversified his game.  Michael Gbinije has improved his all-around game, plus improved his shooting, and Rakeem Christmas has cut down on the silly fouls giving him more playing time and remained a consistent steady inside force. 

The parts are coming together but the Orange need more progression from others players.  Chris McCullough has to learn how to handle being pushed around.  Kaleb Joseph, or Ron Patterson, needs to step up and take control of the point guard position.  Either B.J. Johnson or Tyler Roberson has to become more reliable on both the defensive and offensive end of the courts. 

It all starts with the Virginia Tech game this Saturday. Go Orange!