Syracuse, at 10-1, is off to a good start, but the loss to Temple has left some questions as to how well this incarnation of Orange basketball can gel come tournament time.
The hot start was predictable, but being a double-digit favorite against a team that just lost to Canisius and coming up empty-handed wasn’t foreseen by anyone, save for a few Philadelphia faithful.
Orange fans can look at the loss as a teaching moment and a great opportunity for coach Jim Boeheim to have complete and uninterrupted attention during practice.
After the Orange won its ninth game against the aforementioned Canisius in the Gotham Classic game at the Carrier Dome, Syracuse fans started spreading the word that this team might be better than last years’s team.
After just skating by Detroit with a four-point victory for Boeheim’s 900th win, the word on the street was that there were chinks in the armor.
Now in the aftermath of the Temple loss, there seems to be something rotten in Denmark.
But there’s no need to jump ship just yet.
This is still a deadly team when it is on, and the Temple game should end up being an anomaly. It should be noted, however, that this is not last year’s team. Last year’s team was the deepest team in Syracuse history, with its eyes on a national championship before a Fab Melo’s absence derailed the Orange train.
This year’s team has depth, but first off the bench is no longer Dion Waiters but James Southerland, who has shown improvement over last year, but is just not the same caliber player as Waiters. That’s no slight against Southerland. Players with a spark off the bench like Waiters are the rarest of breeds.
So why should the Orange faithful be at ease?
Let’s first take a look at the numbers.
Of the 10 players who averaged over 10 minutes per game last year, six have returned. Adding Jerami Grant, Trevor Cooney and DaJuan Coleman to the mix, the Orange total nine players averaging over ten minutes per game.
Statistically, this team has exceeded last year’s averages in almost every significant category, save for a few, but we’ll get into that later. This team scores seven more points per game (fifth in the nation) but is allowing a point less, for a plus-8 improvement over last year. This team averages nine more rebounds per game, also fifth in the nation. It also gets more steals, blocks, assists and shoots at a higher clip.
What’s lacking, however, is that this team is averaging three more turnovers per game than last year and has gone from shooting 70 percent from the free-throw line to shooting 65 percent from the free-throw line.
The reason the stats matter is that regardless of its opponents, Syracuse has not regressed. That doesn’t mean it is better than last year. It means that the foundation for success has been laid and the lesson implemented.
Where Syracuse has been less effective—free throws and turnovers—can be improved with time. It doesn’t mean that it will, but there are only three ways to get to Carnegie Hall…practice, practice, practice.
Another reason to keep hope alive is the dramatic improvement of the roster.
Take Michael Carter-Williams. Beyond the hype of his nation-leading assist numbers or that he’s third in the nation in steals, and while his minutes have tripled from last year, his production in most major categories has either quadrupled or quintupled. In scoring, he has gone from 2.7 points per game to 12.4. That’s over 4.5 times better than last year. In assists, he went from 2.1 per game to 10.3. That’s almost five times better. He’s nearly quadrupled his steals and rebounds, and his only drawback seems to be that he’s had a proclivity to be a little sloppy with the ball, which has led to his dramatic increase in turnovers per game, but the 6’6” sophomore still has a 3-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. As he becomes more comfortable with the ball in his control, this should dramatically increase.
Another huge improvement has been Southerland. His minutes have only increased by about 50 percent, but he’s doubled his scoring, tripled his rebounding and has actually improved in every statistical category, including raising his three-point percentage from .345 to .441. To illustrate the significance of that increase, last year, Southerland took 110 three pointers and made a respectable 37. This year, he has already hit 26 triples, while only attempting 59. That’s three-point confidence the Orange haven’t had since Gerry McNamara wore the No. 3 jersey.
The truth is that all returning players have shown improvement and the newcomers are showing promise. The only player who hasn’t dramatically increased his output from last year is C.J. Fair, but he’s getting there. This team is immensely talented and didn't all of a sudden become a poor team after one bad game.
The picture that is painted is that Jim Boeheim has put together a team that still performs the duties he needs it to perform. It creates turnovers to set up the fast break. It has incredible length, helping block shots and denies entry passes into the middle of the zone. It has a good blend of reliable age to mix with impressionable youth, and most importantly, the Orange got a little egg on its face early, to give a lesson in humility.
Syracuse has Alcorn State coming up on December 29, which on the surface looks like a pushover game, but smart money says that coach Boeheim will have his men looking to pitch a shutout. Another struggling game like the one against Temple and heads will begin to roll, but for now, the Orange Nation should stay on the boat.