Syracuse Basketball: 5 Keys to Orange Winning the Big East Tournament
The Syracuse Orange (30-1, 17-1 Big East) enter Madison Square Garden on Thursday as the top seed in the Big East Tournament and the second-ranked team in the country.
Although the Orange have already locked a spot in the NCAA tournament, Jim Boeheim's club still has some work to do before they're ready for the Big Dance.
Here are five keys for Syracuse to win the Big East tournament.
1. Rebound the Ball
Rebounding has been the Achilles' heel for Syracuse all season. The Orange are just 125th in the country with 35.4 rebounds per game, grabbing a pathetic 63.9 percent of defensive rebounds (328th). That translates into an extra possession for the opponent for every three shot attempts.
The Orange shoot the ball well enough that they can win despite missed rebounds. But in Syracuse's only loss of the season in January at Notre Dame, the Orange were manhandled on the glass to the tune of a minus-13 rebounding margin, albeit without their starter.
Syracuse has the size to get the job done on the boards, with centers Fab Melo (7'0") and Baye Keita (6'10"), plus forwards Kris Joseph (6'7"), C.J. Fair (6'8") and James Southerland (6'8"). The 2-3 zone may not be conducive to good rebounding, but it's up to Boeheim to keep his players aggressive.
2. Just a Scoop
Scoop Jardine may be the hardest player to figure out in all of college basketball. There are days when the senior guard looks like an NBA All-Star, slashing to the basket with authority and knocking down deep threes. But then there are days when he can't even hit the rim and repeatedly dribbles the ball off his foot.
Jardine's best game of the season came on February 11 against Connecticut, when he went for 21 points on 8-for-9 shooting (4-for-4 from three), six assists and just one turnover. But then two days later in a game at Louisville, he bricked all eight of his shots and finished with zero points, five assists and two turnovers.
Jardine is tied for seventh in the Big East in assists (4.9 APG), so he's obviously skilled as a passer. But if Jardine (46.7 percent field goals, 27.8 percent threes) starts looking for his shot instead of trying to get open looks for his teammates, then the Orange offense could become stagnant.
3. Stay out of Foul Trouble
The Orange may have one of the deepest teams in the country, but Boeheim only uses six or seven players as part of his rotation (Rakeem Christmas' 10.6 MPG not included).
That means if a starter or a key reserve has to go to the bench with early foul trouble, then Syracuse may have a tough time winning the game.
Fab Melo and back-up center Baye Keita are two especially critical parts of Boeheim's rotation, and need to maintain the middle of the zone. We all saw what happened to the Orange when they had to play without Melo.
4. Avoid Off-Court Distractions
The Orange survived the Bernie Fine controversy on their way to the best start in school history. Fab Melo missed three games midseason due to undisclosed reasons. Then last week the university self-reported potential violations of the NCAA's drug policy, leading to an ongoing investigation.
No current players were implicated in the scandal, but the report adds to a long list of items of why there is so much national attention with what happens to the Orange off the court.
The Orange have shown impressive resolve this season to win no matter who they're playing, who's on the court or who's behind the bench. They will have to keep it up if they want to avoid an early tournament exit.
5. Embrace the Garden
With Syracuse's impending move to the ACC, this tournament could be the school's final appearance at the famed Madison Square Garden.
The Orange have enjoyed some historic moments in the MSG arena, including 2009's six-OT thriller versus the Connecticut Huskies and five Big East championships, most recently in 2006. The Garden is like a second home for many Syracuse players, with as many as six games scheduled at MSG each season.
This year's Big East tournament is a final opportunity for the seniors to leave their mark on one of the biggest stages in all of sports. There is no mark that shines brighter than winning.