Rooting For Rautins
March 2, 2010 - John Whittaker
For the first time in nearly 20 years, the Syracuse Orange are ranked first in the AP men's basketball poll - another summit reached in a dream season for Syracuse fans.
The Orange started the season unranked and lost to LeMoyne, a Division 2 team, in a pre-season scrimmage. A schedule that ranked among the country's toughest (neutral court games against California, Florida and North Carolina, a road game at Memphis and probably NCAA Tournament teams Connecticut, West Virginia, Georgetown, Villanova and West Virginia on the conference schedule) looked too tough without three starters from the 2008-09 team.
Then, the season starter and the Orange started winning. They blew out California. They killed North Carolina. They handled Memphis. Florida was no match. Coach Boeheim's boys rolled though the Big East schedule, losing only twice -- home games to Pittsburgh and Louisville.
With one week left in the regular season, it's safe to say this team matched all of its regular season goals.
One question is still rattling around my head, though?
Who wins the Big East Player of the Year.
ESPN has constantly touted Wesley Johnson for the award - and it's hard to argue against that line of thought. Johnson is the only player on most of the Player of the Year lists to rank in the nation's top 500 in defensive rebounding, steal and block rates, and he is likely to win the honor given to the Big East's top defender, according to FoxSports.com.
Of all the players on this year's Syracuse team, Johnson is probably the best NBA prospect. He can shoot the ball like a guard, is an unbelievable jumper and shows signs of being able to be an above-average defender. He's easily a top-five NBA Draft pick if he leaves Syracuse after this season.
He's also the second most valuable player for the Orange.
I could spout statistics to prove my point, but I won't do that because sports isn't always about statistics. Sometimes, you have to go with your gut - and my Buddha Belly tells me Andy Rautins is not only the most valuable player on the Orange, but might be able to make a case as the Big East Player of the Year.
A 6-foot-5 inch guard, Rautins is finally playing in position offensively and defensively after splitting time with Eric Devendorf the last three years. Not only can Rautins fill it up, as evidenced by Tuesday's 28 point outburst against Providence, but he does every little thing Syracuse needs to be successful.
Rautins routinely comes up with big rebounds when the big guys are out of position. He makes at least one "Wow" pass a game while showing an ability to get his teammates the ball in the best place for them to score.
Most importantly, Syracuse is terrible when he's out of the game.
Take the Orange's Feb. 10 game against Connecticut, for example. Syracuse had forged a 48-34 lead before Rautins was forced out of the game with 14:38 left in the second half with four fouls. In the seven minutes Rautins was out of the game, Connecticut outscored Syracuse 17-6 to close to 54-51 in a game Syracuse ended up winning only 72-67.
What happened? Wesley Johnson was in the game for part of that time, and it's not like Syracuse has no offensive options.
Well, the ball didn't move nearly as crisply with Rautins out of the game. Brandon Triche is a freshman who makes freshman plays. Scoop Jardine can take anyone to the basket, but it takes him 30 seconds of dribbling and everyone else standing around to do so. The ball doesn't go into the post. It doesn't move quickly to help get the defense out of position. Plus, Rauting is such a threat to shoot the ball from anywhere on the court that teams have to respect his shot fakes and close out on him quickly - which means Andy can use a decent first step to get past his man and get another player involved in the offense.
And, for some reason, Rautins has an innate knack for getting the ball to his teammates where they're comfortable scoring. It's something Triche will get the hang of in time, but for now, Rautins has a way of getting his teammates involved that makes Syracuse better than the sum of its parts.
Defensively, Rautins might not be the best man to man defender I've ever seen, but he can play the 2-3 zone perfectly. I can't count how many times this season I've seen an offensive player think he's got Triche or Jardine beaten only to see Rautins slide underneath and prevent the penetration. He's quick to close out on 3-pointers, is the best passing-lane defender I've seen Syracuse have since Carmelo Anthony and Hakim Warrick.
Best of all, he's a hustler and a scrapper, much like Gerry McNamara. While hoops pundits thought Eric Devendorf was the heir apparent to Gerry, it's now obvious that Rautins is much more in McNamara's role as a scrapper and zone shooter. Devendorf was more talented than McNamara and Rautins, but wasn't able to do the little things that make teams successful.
Statistically, Rautins doesn't stack up to Greg Monroe, Scottie Reynolds, Luke Harangody, Dominique Jones or D'Sean Butler, any of whom could win Big East Player of the Year with no problems. Those players have to put up huge point totals for their teams to win, so their teams run their offense through them.
Given the type of player he is, it's not unrealistic to see Rautins as J.J. Redick - a national Player of the Year candidate for Duke in 2005-06 when he scored 26.8 points a game on 42.8 percent 3-point shooting. While Redick is a bona-fide NBA player, he didn't do the little things as well as Rautins does. Rautins has more assists per game, 4.7 a game to 2.6 a game; more steals a game, 2.1 to 1.4, and more rebounds a game, 3.2 to 2.0.
Where Rautins comes up short is scoring.
Because the Orange are so deep offensively, Rautins averages 11.8 points a game even though he shoots 41 percent from 3-point range. Johnson leads the team at 16 points a game, but the Orange have six players averaging between 7 and 16 points a game. Depending on how a team defends Syracuse, any of the five players on the court are capable of busting out for 30 points, as happened Tuesday against Providence when Rick Jackson and Rautins each scored 28 points. That depth hurts Johnson and Rautins in postseason honors discussions. A lot of other players don't have the luxury of being able to have an off-night.
Rautins also hurt his case by not putting up huge numbers in the non-conference season against cream-puff opponents and then having a couple of games where he struggled with his shooting (DePaul and the first Providence game.
If you want me to make my case for Rautins as Player of the Year, though, I'll refer you to his effort against Marquette on Jan. 23 -- a game in which Rautins scored a whopping zero points, took an amazing two shots and only had one rebound.
You see, Marquette decided they didn't want Rautins shooting the 3, so they played a triangle and 2 defense on Rautins and Johnson. Rather than jack up bad shots, Rautins acted as a point guard, notching six assists and three steals while getting teammates in positions to score the ball.
According to ESPN.com, Rautins shrugged off his 0-for-2 performance, noting how well the forwards took advantage of the mismatches down low in a contest that would've been a blowout if not for Syracuse's defensive let down in the final 4 minutes.
"If you can't score in one aspect, you find other ways to win," Rautins told reporters after the game.
It's that attitude that makes me root for Rautins to be named the best player in the conference, and it's that attitude that makes me love rooting for Rautins every time the Orange take the court this season. Wes Johnson might be taken higher in this year's NBA Draft, but Rautins is the heart and soul of this year's team.
Now that conference tournament and NCAA Tournament time is almost here, it's time for the rest of the country to find out what Syracuse fans have known all along - that Andy Rautins is a great, not good, college basketball player.
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Andy Rautins, far right, does all the little things for the top-ranked Orange. He's a dark-horse candidate for Big East Player of the Year, and the best candidate for a break-out performance during the Big East and NCAA Tournaments. AP Photo