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How Syracuse Can Save Its Season

February 12, 2011 - John Whittaker
As Louisville kept expanding its lead on Syracuse on Saturday, I kept waiting for a phone call that I knew wasn't coming.

You see, my brother and I form a nice mutual support group during the Syracuse basketball season. If the Cuse is winning, chances are it'll be a one-call night. In 15 to 20 minutes, we'll hit the high points, enjoy our favorite team playing well and then say our goodbyes.

A blowout loss is a quick call.

Matt: What's up, bro?

Me: We suck.

Matt: Yup. But next year, we get Trevor Cooney and Rakeem Christmas. We'll be fine.

It gets a little more complicated in a close game, where three or four calls aren't out of the ordinary. Usually, the first call is 25 to 30 minutes (thank God for free Verizon to Verizon calls). If the situation warrants, we could talk one or two more times depending on who makes a really dumb play or who makes a play that saves a tight game. The News Wife's just gotten to the point she knows the calls are coming and tries to stifle a laugh as Matt and I coach from our couches.

So, on Saturday, with Matt getting ready to deploy overseas, I knew he wouldn't be able to call. Things were just a little too busy on his end of things. Still, after watching a seven-point lead evaporate in less than four minutes, I could just imaging the call in my head.

How were we not defending the three-pointer better? Why are the guards not preventing high-post entry passes on defense? Why do we insist on not working for a good shot when we get close? Could Brandon Triche have played worse defense on the 40-foot buzzer-beater in the first half by Preston Knowles? Why are we not pounding them inside with Rick Jackson? Could somebody, anybody, grab a defensive rebound?

Since I can't get my frustration out over the phone with my brother, it's up to you guys, my loyal readers, to be my outlet to get my annoyance with the Cuse out in the open. As it so happens, this is the first Syracuse hoops blog I've written this year — not that I haven't had one done a few times. I didn't want to write a preview since I hadn't actually seen this team practice. What do I know that the "experts" don't? Writing during an 18-game winning streak just seemed like piling on. But now, after three consecutive discouraging outings, seems like as good a time as any to weigh in.

Jim Boeheim said all season long that this Syracuse team was the most overrated team he's had in years. I hate to say it, but he was right. Listening to Boeheim all season long, it was obvious to see he was a coach searching for answers. His team was winning, but he knew the questions would come. Despite the wins, the Orange weren't playing well — they only beat William and Mary by 3 points, and have been hanging on by the skin of their teeth against teams they should have been beating by 10 or 15 points.

Well, the questions are coming at the coach fast and furious now, and I'm not sure he's found those answers quite yet.

Five things that need to happen, soon, for Syracuse to save its season:

1. Establish a go-to guy. One of the reasons the Orange have no offensive identity is four of the five starters think they're the first option on offense. To have a cohesive club, a team must have its scoring options ordered. For this team, it looks like Kris Joseph should be the first option, followed by Rick Jackson. On every offensive possession, one of those guys — and preferably both of them — should touch the ball. Far too many times in the Villanova loss, Jackson had a smaller man pinned on his back and didn't get the ball. Far too many times, the guards brought the ball up and took a quick shot without so much as glancing at Joseph or Jackson. Two Syracuse players are possible NBA players, and Jackson and Joseph need to have the ball in their hands.

2. Not only does Syracuse need to stick with the zone, they need to extend it from the opening tip. One of the big culprits for the Orange's slow starts this season (see Pittsburgh, 19-0 start to the game) has been opposing players getting wide open shots until the zone starts coming out on shooters. Jeremy Hazell's first three shots in the second Seton Hall game were wide open, and Hazell has torched Syracuse in years past. Rather than start passively in the zone, the guards and wings have to be more aggressive. That doesn't mean flying past shooters like Maverick buzzing a tower (I'm looking at you, Dion Waiters) but they have to be able to get a hand in shooters' faces.

As a side note, I caught the 2003 Syracuse-Michigan State game on SNY's Big East Classic Game of the Week. Of course, I had to watch since it's one of the few times you see Gerry McNamara, Hakim Warrick and Carmelo Anthony in a Syracuse uniform anymore. What really stood out to me wasn't the offense. That was just Carmelo creating whatever he wanted and getting open shots for his teammates. Defensively, the guards were much more active than the guards on this team. McNamara, Billy Edelin and Kueth Duany ranged the entire perimeter, from free throw line extended on either side, sometimes even chasing shooters to the baseline. The backside guard managed to at least make Michigan State think twice about trying to enter the ball to the free throw line.

Those things don't happen with this team - and Louisville killed them for it. One pass to the middle, kick the ball opposite and hit a three. It was automatic. If you can keep the ball from the middle, those shots don't happen.

3. Rebound. When Joseph got hurt, James Southerland stepped into the lineup. Over the course of three games, Southerland has three rebounds. It'd be alright if James was scoring 20 a night, but when you're scoring 5.9 points a game, you have to be more aggressive on the backboards. Part of the problem here is the large deficits the Orange have been staring at during their recent games. Because Fab Melo apparently needs to be on Celebrity Fit Club, he can only play in 2 or 3 minute spurts. Baye Moussa Keita is a decent rebounder and defender, but limited would be overstating his offensive contributions. When Rick Jackson has to play center, it hurts the Orange in so many other ways.

4. Figure out the guard situation. It's impossible for Syracuse to become a cohesive unit when the guards are shuffled in and out of the game with no rhyme or reason. Brandon Triche will play a good six or seven minute stretch only to find himself getting splinters in his butt in the second half of a game. And, when he does get big minutes, he disappears. Scoop Jardine is obviously trying too hard to impress his girlfriend, because he's trying to make plays that Michael Jordan never even thought of. Everyone thinks Dion Waiters is going to be a great player, but I haven't seen it yet. But, since the coaching staff is trying to forcefeed Waiters minutes, and because Jardine continues to think he's Pete Maravich, the guard situation just continues to be muddled.

5. Play smarter. I could have gone with free throw shooting. I could even have gone with, 'start hitting layups and put-backs." But, I'll go with play smarter. There is no need to take a contested fadeaway three-pointer with 25 seconds left on the shot clock (see Jardine, Scoop, and associated Whitless Wonder heart attack). When you have an open 8-foot jump shot, you should probably take it (see Melo, Fab). When you're facing a guy who has killed you in the past, you might want to get a hand up. Whichever combination of five players are on the floor at any given time, there needs to be better communication. The wing players on the zone need to communicate with the guards to know a wing jump shot will be contested. The guard screen at the top of the zone needs to be called out. Guards have to hedge on the screen. If you're not running offensive sets, then you'd really better be on the same page offensively. Dump the ball in to the post once in a while, and establish the post multiple times in a given possession. Don't gamble on defense just to give the appearance that you're playing hard.


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