Syracuse Orange Basketball: Ten Mid Season Observations
After a stellar start, the Syracuse Orange have remained among the ranks of the undefeated and have held down the number one spot in the nation for five weeks, the second-longest time frame in school history.
This season started with high expectations for all teams, not just Syracuse, and the end result has been great college basketball throughout the country with Syracuse epitomizing consistency and domination.
With the Orange about halfway through their season (13 more Big East games plus the Big East tournament) it is safe to start seriously looking at their strengths and identity.
Here are ten things that the first half of the Orange's season tell us about a squad that Jim Boeheim has led to the top of the rankings.
The Team Has Unprecedented Depth
This point has been pretty well established, even if it took the national media a little longer than everyone else to catch on.
This could be one of the few top five teams in the history of college basketball where you can legitimately ask if the second five could beat the starting five. This is a team who's leading scorer has not started this year.
This is a team that can mix and match their lineup to the point that if Jim Boeheim wanted to, he could probably try hundreds of combinations out of players on the floor—and still defeat quality opponents.
Players like James Southerland and Dion Waiters are consistently able to provide a spark off the bench while C.J. Fair may be the most consistent player on the Orange's roster.
Overall, Jim Boeheim is expertly able to deploy his players when opponents are vulnerable. That's what happens when you get a Hall of Fame coach with 10 of the best basketball players in the country.
Defense Is the Strength
While defense may not be sexy, it is surely effective. This season, the Syracuse defense is what has made this team so difficult to defeat.
The 2-3 zone of the Orange has frustrated so many opponents this year because of the length of the Syracuse players. Boeheim has recruited a certain type of team and no foe can simulate this length in a practice setting.
Syracuse has become of of the best in the country when it comes to steals, and the opportunistic Dion Waiters leads the Orange in this category. Meanwhile, Fab Melo, Baye Kieta, and C.J. Fair have all done very well manning the middle of zone.
While the Orange have had rebounding issues from time to time, the defense on a whole is perhaps the best in country due to how special it is. These are teams that make deep postseason runs.
Fab Melo Is Absolutely Fabulous
After last season, I was leading the charge of the "Fab Melo is overrated" campaign. I refused to beleive that he could make any substantial changes in his game which was a product of poor work ethic and hype.
I was completely wrong. In fact, it is hard for Fab Melo not to be your favorite player.
While I could talk about how he set the single game blocks record for a Syracuse player, or the fact that he has already eclipsed his point total from last year or even mention that he improved his free throw shooting, there is one moment that shows the maturation of Fab.
In the early season contest against Florida, the crowd was loud and waiting for a moment to go nuts and make Florida feel a true Syracuse welcome. However, the Orange guards were having issues finding shoot opportunities or lanes to drive against Florida on their first few possessions.
Fab Melo then found an open spot in the key, called for the ball, got it, and dunked with a ferocity and intensity that was so out of character for the chillin' Brazilian. He took control of the game early and that helped Syracuse establish their lead.
Fab Melo is definitely the most improved player on the Orange and perhaps in the entire nation.
Most Adaptable Team in the Country
The Orange are a team that can defeat you in many ways, a trait very few teams possess. The Orange would prefer to beat you with a stifling defense that opens up points in the transition game. But if that's not your thing, Syracuse has something else that will suit you.
Prefer to force the game into a half court setting? In that case expect to see a heavy dose of Fab Melo or C.J. Fair dominating down low or kicking the ball back out to Kris Joseph or Brandon Triche. Lock down the big men? That is okay because then James Southerland, Dion Waiters, Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph and/or Brandon Triche can pass the ball around until someone has the open shot.
I think the point is coming across: this is not a team with one set way to win. This is a team that will play their defense and work with whatever opponents give them. This Orange team's depth provides Boeheim with enough options to find some recipe for success.
Whether against Stanford, NC State or even Florida, the Orange adapted to the style of play necessary and would win the game. Because they play so well as a team, the Orange can adapt to survive any team.
Different "Superstar" Every Night
One of the knocks against the Orange has been that there is no definitive superstar to carry this team. Thus, the Orange do not know who to give the ball to in a close game and will not be able to score.
Sorry, Heat-ified media: There is more than one way to play basketball, such as the old way that James Arthur Boeheim knows pretty well. The fact is that Syracuse actually has multiple superstars.
Against Stanford, it was Kris Joseph who stepped up big to win the NIT Tip Off Tournament MVP and lead the Orange past the Cardinal. Against Florida, it was Scoop Jardine who created plays for his teammates and knocked down jump shots from all over the court.
Against NC State it was Dion Waiters who blew up for 22 and it was Brandon Triche who led the Orange in scoring as Big East play opened against Providence.
The list continues to go on, but the moral of the story is this: The Orange have at least four scorers who have already shown the ability to take over a game and be relied upon to win games. I cannot see how this is not a strength for Syracuse.
"Hell Week" Will Determine How Special This Group Is
We all have heard about the grueling "Hell Week" special ops groups in the army must go through before they can be cleared for combat. For the Orange, their "Hell Week" before they can be cleared for NCAA dominance is February 8-13.
During this stretch, the Orange will play Big East rivals Georgetown, UConn and Louisville. All are ranked opponents, all are vying for second place in the Big East and all love to beat Syracuse.
The first two games will be played in the Dome, with the UConn game looking to set the Syracuse attendance record. Louisville has always found ways to frustrate the Orange, especially in their arena.
Even though all three teams have bad losses on their records, they are still quality teams with talented players and coaches who know how to play against Boeheim's 2-3 zone.
If Syracuse comes out of this stretch with no losses, then no one can dispute that they are the kings of the Big East.
Syracuse Will Never Get the Respect They Fully Deserve
Yet even if Syracuse makes it through those three games undefeated, I will guarantee that someone (money is on Ron Morris) will still say the Orange is not as good as Kentucky or UNC, maybe even Ohio State.
The Orange were never the "sexy" preseason pick because they did not have the future NBA lottery pick or flashy style of play to make ESPN's top plays. But the Orange kept winning their games.
Being the No. 1 team has not resulted in the praise that the previously mentioned teams would have enjoyed, it has led to a critical analysis of Syracuse has not done. First it was a "true road game." Then it was strength of schedule.
Now, it is still one of the two, even though Syracuse has a top five strength of schedule and has easily defeated Providence and North Carolina State on the road while Ohio State and Kentucky keep struggling when they leave their home arenas.
The bottom line is that Syracuse was thought to be good and not great and experts hate to be wrong. They will continue to deny the Orange their due, meaning the fans get their number one ranking while Boeheim can continue to be the underdog, just how he likes it.
Jim Boeheim Will Finish This Season Top Three in Coaching Wins
Speaking of Jim Boeheim, the professor is on the cusp of greatness and many people seem to be forgetting it or are simply oblivious to it.
As of January 8, Boeheim has managed 874 wins in his career. Not too shabby and remarkable, considering that these have all come at Syracuse.
Adolph Rupp, the Kentucky legend, is the man in front of Boeheim at number four with a grand total 876, meaning Boeheim should pass him fairly soon. After that mark, Dean Smith is at number three with a total of 879 total wins.
So yes, if the Orange can continue to win like they will, by the end of February, Jim Boeheim will be the number three coach on the all time wins list. He will also be only 23 wins away from the magic mark of 903, meaning that will pass Bobby Knight and trail only Coach K.
Regardless of your team affiliation, this is a remarkable achievement for any coach and all Syracuse fans will agree, Syracuse basketball would not even be close to what it is today without Jim Boeheim.
Maturity Through Adversity
I hate to even bring this situation up since it has been nearly a full month since recent developments, but the Bernie Fine scandal could have very well ended the Syracuse Orange season.
It was a scandal that led to national media scrutiny and led Boeheim and all of Syracuse to be put under the national microscope that had just finished uncovering a Penn State scandal that shook the notions of collegiate athletics.
While this has all led to Boeheim and the University's pending legal action, the basketball team had to deal with losing a coach and playing it's biggest game of the year with almost every media outlet in the county focused on their head coach.
Instead of wilting under the pressure or even taking a "us against you" aggressive attitude, this Syracuse team, led by seniors and players who matured a lot over this summer (Cough, Dion Waiters) the Orange went bout their business of playing basketball.
It is a safe bet to say that this whole situation made the team stronger and perhaps why this team seems to be so content with a 10 man rotation and no superstars. This kind of maturity is not even found in most NBA locker rooms and it is why the Orange moved on from Bernie Fine so quickly.
This Is a National Championship Team
With all of these things in mind, the grand finale is this: the 2011-12 Syracuse Orange basketball team is one who will contend for the Title.
Their style of play is one that talented Big East teams with years of knowledge of Syracuse cannot seem to stop. Their maturity and mindset is one of a true team that will have role players step in when stars are slumping.
Their 2-3 zone is a defense that is having more success than ever and teams not used to playing against it will struggle long enough for the Orange to break the game open in their favor.
Their depth favors them for a deep post season tournament run and a number one overall seed should ensure that the road to New Orleans part two is as easy as it gets.
This is a special team in the midst of a special season in college basketball. While anything can happen from now to April, the bottom line is this: This team will go down as one of the best in Syracuse history. A title would only further cement their legacy.
Andrew Pregler is a Syracuse football and basketball Featured Columnist. Follow @ACPregler on Twitter for more Syracuse sports news and updates.