With the tremendous season Syracuse men’s basketball is enjoying, ringing in a new year is a most enjoyable experience. The top-ranked Orange and coach Jim Boeheim are certainly happy about how 2011 ended and will try to duplicate the success in 2012.
Syracuse hopes to keep focused, but with a new year comes a new challenge. That challenge being the Big East regular season. The Orange kicked off its conference schedule with a 75-49 tail-whipping of Seton Hall and the game wasn’t as close as the score. Seton Hall came into the Carrier Dome with a shiny 11-1 record, but left the building with a full understanding that papa don’t take no mess, and neither does Syracuse (apologies to Leonard Washington).
The 26-point drubbing should serve to send a message that Syracuse is dedicated to the defensive end of the court and has the length to quiet the noisiest of offenses.
New Year’s Day brings the promise of washing dirt away and making new again. Syracuse has a few things it would like to wash away, but also has a foundation of success it will continue to build upon.
These are the biggest hopes of Syracuse for 2012.
Dion Waiters has proven himself to be the most important piece of the Syracuse puzzle.
His high-energy output every time he steps on the court is exactly what the Orange needs, every single time he’s out there.
While most teams would relish the opportunity to have a player of Waiters' caliber in their starting lineup, Waiters is the change of pace the Orange needs off the bench.
Whether it be an offensive lull or a need to stop a defensive breakdown, Waiters is the everyman for Jim Boeheim. He leads the team in steals and his defensive tenacity is contagious, which is shown by the Orange leading the nation in steals.
He has the talent and confidence to put the Orange on his back whenever needed and has hit too many big shots in the early season to list here.
Regardless of being the sixth man, Waiters has embraced his role. He doesn’t look at his position as a bench player, but as one of the eight starters who fuel this locomotive.
He could be the best player on this talented Orange team, but his role as the best sixth man in the NCAA is too important to change.
The whole of Syracuse may be greater than the sum of its parts. With so much depth, Jim Boeheim has the luxury of resting everyone, including his senior star, Kris Joseph.
Joseph is playing fewer minutes this season than last, but that is not a judge of him as much as it is a testament to how deep the Syracuse bench has become. Joseph was thrust into the position of being the go-to man as a junior, but does not have the same pressure to perform as he did last season.
The beauty of this is that Joseph’s game has actually improved without the added pressure.
Before his scoreless effort against Seton Hall (we’ll call this an anomaly), Joseph was averaging 14.4 points per game, a virtually identical number to last year’s 14.3, while playing four fewer minutes.
He’s improved his three-point shooting from 36 percent to 40 percent. He’s become an 82 percent free-throw shooter, where last year he shot at a 71 percent clip. But the real icing on the cake, and the evidence that he is less frustrated, is that he’s lowered his turnovers per game by more than a full turnover. Last year, he committed 2.1 turnovers per game while he’s lowered that to just 0.9 this season.
That’s the good.
What Joseph should do now is embrace his role as a senior leader and make this his team. Syracuse can survive without Joseph scoring 20 points a game because the Orange has a great supporting cast.
He can now score because he wants to, not because he has to. He’s way too comfortable this season as an ingredient of the stew instead of the main course.
I’m not suggesting he become a ball hog or take every shot, just more shots at the appropriate times.
As the season dogs on, someone will emerge as the leader of this team. Joseph should want that role. He certainly has the talent to do so; all he needs is the will.
Enough has been written about the Bernie Fine scandal to fill the Bird Library, so I won’t rehash.
It seems that it is almost impossible to see a Syracuse game where it isn’t mentioned and nary an article exists about the Orange without some mention of the child molestation investigation and subsequent law suits.
The players haven’t shown any ill effects and the coaching staff seems to be getting along well without Fine, but this scandal is the elephant in the living room.
What would be best for all parties involved is for the truth to set everyone free. It is a very uncomfortable situation for all involved, but this type of alleged behavior cannot be tolerated in decent society and should be dealt with swiftly and harshly, should any type of guilt be found.
As far as the suit against Boeheim and Syracuse, I would think that some sort of settlement is reached out of court. Smart money says that Syracuse and Boeheim could win the suit, but getting the story out of the headlines combined with the legal costs involved necessitates a quick close to the defamation aspect of this troubling situation.
As I recently wrote, Syracuse will go as far as the defense takes them and that is looking to be pretty far.
The Orange play inspired defense, which has led to a nation-leading steal total and an average margin of victory of over 20 points per game.
There are plenty of ways to attack a 2-3 zone, but those opportunities greatly diminish when the zone is executed with skill and length, which this team has in abundance.
Length and defensive discipline were strong qualities of the Orange’s 2003 title team and signs are pointing to another deep effort in the tournament. Syracuse won a mini-version of the Big 12 title that year in its run because none of the four Big 12 teams that Syracuse played in the tournament had an answer for the zone. I believe this version is better than the 2003 version.
Defense and a little help from Carmelo Anthony, Gerry McNamara and Hakim Warrick won Syracuse its first tournament title. If Syracuse can keep up the defensive effort, they should be able to stop saying defense wins championship and start saying defense wins championships.
OK, I made up the three Hs, but they are important to remember. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of being the No. 1 team in America. It’s even permissible to believe they’re the best team in the land. What’s not good is to think that winning will come without hard work.
That starts with staying humble. There are enough talented players coming off the Syracuse bench to sit anyone who isn’t giving the best possible effort. This should keep the guys hungry.
Every team Syracuse plays for the rest of the season will use that game as a measuring stick for themselves. Syracuse has to bring its “A” game every night. So far, the team has relished the opportunity to show America what a hard working team with talent is capable of. They need to make sure they don’t feel anything is owed to them that they don’t earn on the court.
One of the good things about being the top-ranked team is that teams are examining them for weaknesses and attempting to exploit the deficiencies they find. A win against Syracuse will be a gold standard for a program and they should get each team’s best effort.
Jim Boeheim will be able to use game tape in every practice fix the holes that need fixing.
Syracuse is an interesting team because while it has star power, it lacks a true star. Syracuse goes two deep at every position and Jim Boeheim has masterfully found a balance of playing time for his starters and bench players to get the minutes they crave. Without having a superstar to lean on, Syracuse is the prime example of a team concept.
Yes, I said that Kris Joseph needs to step up and be more of a team leader. That doesn’t mean he needs to be a superstar, just the best Kris Joseph he can be.
Staying hungry and focused should keep the Orange primed for a deep tournament push.