Syracuse basketball is on a roll, with a win at then-#1 Louisville on Saturday and then getting a home win over a good Cincinnati team yesterday afternoon in the Carrier Dome. As good as Jim Boeheim’s program has been over the years, they haven’t reached a Final Four since the national championship season of 2003 with Carmelo Anthony. Is this finally the year for the Orange? At the very least, are they the best in the Big East? Let’s take a closer look at Syracuse’s personnel and what they’ve done in benchmark games so far this year.
Boeheim has one of America’s best point guards running his offense in sophomore, Michael Carter-Williams. The kid is averaging nine assists per game, and just as importantly, he’s a 6’6” point guard, meaning he’s a big matchup problem for the smaller guards that populate most every college lineup—notably Louisville’s. Indeed, Carter-Williams scored 16 points and had 7 assists in the win over the Cardinals on Saturday and I have every expectation he’ll continue to play well against good teams for the majority of the year.
There’s experience running alongside the young point guard with senior guard, Brandon Triche. It seems as though he’s been around forever, and Triche shoots the ball well from the floor and averages 15 ppg. The frontcourt is where the questions lie, and not because of a lack of talent. While Syracuse doesn’t have a true center, they have a coalition of very good forwards who run 6’8” and 6’9” and in today’s mostly post-less college game, that’s enough to win a national championship with. C.J. Fair is averaging 14 points/7 rebounds, while Rakeem Christmas is a good defensive presence.
Perhaps the biggest question mark surrounds James Southerland. At 6’8” he can play the forward spot, and he’s also a good perimeter shooter—including being the team’s best shooter behind the three-point line. But he hasn’t played the last three games because of some eligibility issues surrounding a term paper. Last year the suspension of Fab Melo cost Syracuse some wins in the regular season and probably a trip to the Final Four, given that a competitive loss to Ohio State in the regional final was how the season ended.
It’s very tough to see how Syracuse can win the Big East without Southerland. I’m not going into picking Final Four chances—we can let the next seven weeks play out and see how teams look, and how the brackets break down. But based purely on talent, Syracuse is not top-four material without their best shooter, nor are they deep enough. Boeheim has a couple pretty good rebounders on his bench in DaJaun Coleman and Baye Keita, but they haven’t seen a lot of playing time to date, and even if they do, there’s no reason to think either one will suddenly start burying treys.
That’s the bad news for Syracuse. The good news is this—if they get Southerland back, you have to think of this as a top four team. They play the excellent zone defense that Boeheim has taught for years, both Southerland and Carter-Williams would be tough to match up against and there would be quality senior leadership from Triche.
Syracuse has only lost one game this year, that being to Temple. While it was a home game, it was a situation caused by the Orange only hitting 2/12 from three-point range and Owl guard Khalif Wyatt going off for 33 points in an 83-79 game. Certainly, the ‘Cuse did not play defense the way their coach would like, but just as certainly, that’s a type of game that’s more aberration than recurring pattern.
Subsequent games have proven this point. Syracuse was able to get the narrow two-point wins over Louisville and Cincinnati without Southerland—indicative of how good the Orange will be if they get him back. They did a terrific job defensively at Louisville, locking down Cardinal point guard Peyton Siva and keeping Louisville center Gorgui Deng off the boards. Triche buried 23 points. Then yesterday, Syracuse won in spite of the fact that Cincinnati hit their three-point shots and did a better job on the glass. It was consistent all-around defense that did the trick, as the Orange held the Bearcats to 32 percent from the floor, while churning out a steady 46 percent themselves. That’s what known as a sustainable victory, when even the other team being hot from long range isn’t enough to trip you up.
It seems like we’re back where we were a year ago—Syracuse looks like the best team in the Big East and maybe the best in the country, but, once again, eligibility questions are lingering.
REVIVAL AT ST. JOHN’S
St. John’s got off to a slow start in non-conference play, with most of the playing time going to five sophomores and two freshmen. But Steve Lavin’s team has started to round into form for Big East play. Point guard D’Angelo Harrison is emerging as a star, with 20 ppg, and Lavin is getting solid work from freshman Jakarr Simpson (14/7). It makes you wonder how good this team might have been if last year’s freshman sensation Moe Harkless had not bolted for the NBA. But these are the dynamics at play in today’s college basketball environment.
The Red Storm are only 11-7 overall, so they’ve got work to do if an NCAA Tournament bid is going to be in their future. However, they have won at Cincinnati in conference play, also knocked off Notre Dame, and beat DePaul last weekend.
The challenge for Lavin is putting together a win streak when he has a team with no three-point shooting threats. Most nights you can win by beating teams within the arc and St. John’s does well at that, but if you put together a sustained winning streak—like the Johnnies need to, you probably need to steal one here or there by getting hot from three-point range. Or on the flip side, at least not get one stolen from you. In their wins, St. John’s has defended the three-point shot well, and if they can neutralize this part of the game, they’ll win their share the rest of the way. St. John’s revival might have started late, but there’s still enough time to make an NCAA Tournament push.