Orange Nation and Syracuse Eyeing Stretch Run

Adam McNerneyContributor IFebruary 26, 2009

Hello there Orange Nation. Let me first give a big shout-out to the Orange for their absolute annihilation of St. John's on Tuesday night. Jonny Flynn put on a show at MSG, which many high profile athletes have been doing lately. Is this some sort of famous arena or something?

All that aside, that game began a very, very crucial stretch for Syracuse Basketball. Yes, the Villanova loss was extremely frustrating, but the 'Cuse can still make up for it with these next group of games. It’s been said that going 3-1 in the next four following the ‘Nova game would guarantee SU a lock in the NCAA tournament.

With all this in mind, I think it’s time to discuss some of the major strengths and some of the major weaknesses of this team as they head down the stretch and (hopefully) into the big dance. I’ve got a bold prediction at the end for you too, so read on Orange Nation.

We’ll start on a good note with the strengths and what I have always thought to be the major strength of this team all year—their offensive ability.

SU is one of the few teams (with Rick Jackson starting) in the country that can put five starters on the floor who can score or lead the team in scoring on any given night. They have the ability to run and gun with the best of them, and putting up points has not really been much of an issue this year, with the exception of a few very ugly games.

More so, the Orange has a very dangerous backcourt and the guard play has been fabulous all year. Flynn and Eric Devendorf can light it up on any given night, and Andy Rautins can stroke it with the best of them. Having a strong backcourt is essential to any sort of NCAA run this team wants to have (more on that later).

Although Arinze Onuaku is having a very solid year and Jackson may be the comeback player of the year in the Big East, they have tended to disappear sometimes. Is it Arinze not wanting to miss to keep that crisp 68.7 field goal percentage (by the way, who the heck is this Shane Johannsen guy, now leading the country at 71.9 percent)?

Of course I would never think that, but when Arinze wants to dominate, he certainly can and has shown it all year. Jackson’s been a nice touch too, and if the guards can get him the ball close to the basket, he’s got some very nice, unstoppable spin moves.

Paul Harris is Paul Harris. He’s going to take some bad jump shots, and he’s going to have moments where you just want to scream obscenities at him...but he brings fierce competitiveness and emotion to the floor pretty much every night. When he plays with confidence, he is a legitimate threat to put up big numbers. When this offense is clicking, it’s hard to stop them.

I believe the competitiveness of this team has increased recently. Kristof! has provided a huge lift off the bench recently and seems to be the only one willing to make all the garbage, hustle plays. As Ongenaet has come into his own lately, so has this team a little bit. They’ve been more active on defense lately and were actually competitive when they played at UConn.

Remember that G’town game on the road? Or that Pitt game? *Shudders* Ugly losses to say the least, and Kristof has really come into his own since then. Yes, they still lost on the road to UConn and at home to ‘Nova, but it seemed like there was more of a competitive spirit in this team, especially in the UConn game.

Ah, yes, on to the weaknesses now. The primary weakness of this team is the god-awful SLOPPY TURNOVERS. Bad passes (Flynn, Devo), horrible drives to the basket (Devo), multiple travels (Devo). If this team wants to have any sort of a chance to make any sort of noise this year, they must execute the offense and eliminate those stupid turnovers. It’s the reason they lost the ‘Nova game at home, as a couple key turnovers led to easy lay-ups.

The lax energy on defense has also been a concern, although like I said, lately they’ve been looking a little better, especially in the St. John's game. It’s still a cause for concern though, as sometimes they just appear lazy and inactive. Far too many teams have gotten way too easy lay-ups and dunks this year against the 'Cuse.

If they don’t remain active in the Zone or man to man and really focus, well, it doesn’t matter how good of an offense you are—teams will eat you alive.

A curious weakness on this team is also a lack of a true shot blocker. Yes, I know Arinze and Jackson have had a few nice blocks this year, but SU does not really have a legitimate shot blocker. There’s no Jeremy McNeal or Etan Thomas this year. Arinze ranks 92nd in the country, with just 1.5 blocks a game. This lack of a true shot blocker makes it easier for little guards to penetrate and either score a lay-up or go to the foul line.

Not much can be done about that this late in the year, but that means the perimeter defense really needs to step up and not allow penetration and dishes.

So, where does all this leave us? I do believe SU is a tourney team, and I believe they win their final four games of the year. This is my bold prediction—they will go into Marquette and beat a reeling Marquette team, who will be coming off their gauntlet. SU has owned Marquette lately, and I don’t think it changes this year.

The tourney run is hard to predict. I believe with the talent this team has, they are and should be a Sweet 16 team, especially with the talent in the backcourt, because everyone knows come tourney time, it’s the backcourt that usually gets it done. Think of Eric Maynor a few years back or Steph Curry last year.

Past that though, it’s up in the air. A lot will depend on exactly what SU team shows up. If they hustle on both sides of the ball, cut down on the mental mistakes, and play like there’s a fire under their butts, I believe they can run with the best teams in the country—maybe even make an Elite Eight run.

But, and it’s a big but, if they choose to play that lazy, uninspired defense they’ve showed they're more than capable of doing this year and make those constant mental mistakes...well, I shudder to think what would happen in the first round. Every team in the NCAA tournament will be fired up and ready to play, and this team is going to have be fired up if they want to make a run. Talent alone won’t do it.

As I’ve pointed out, they're a strong enough team and can play with anyone, but they have very fatal weaknesses which must be held in check.

Put it this way...if the whole team plays like Kristof has been lately, they’re not getting beat. A lot to ask for, yes, but one can wish.

What do you think? Does this team have what it takes?