Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orange began their final season in the Big East with a 25-point dismantling of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. The No. 7 Orange (13-1, 1-0 Big East) played a nearly perfect game led by senior Brandon Triche’s 25 points and another stellar performance from Michael Carter-Williams.
Boeheim, who just passed Bob Knight for second on the all-time Division I wins list with No. 903, will need an effort similar to the Rutgers game if his team is to survive the giant bull’s eye on its back. The Big East is already looking to be a race to the top between No. 4 Louisville (13-1, 1-0) and Syracuse, and neither team will sneak up on any team.
So, what’s to stop them?
Truthfully, not much, but this team is young and certainly not unbeatable, as Temple proved just before Christmas at Madison Square Garden.
We know the Orange have enough veteran leadership to keep the youth in check and has enough firepower to find a hot hand, rather than force one. Defensively, this bunch is opportunistic, rebounds better than in the past few years and has enough length in the box to deter most comers.
Syracuse has enough positives to outweigh its negatives, but a closer look at what could stand in the way of Syracuse’s success, especially by the Orange, could go a long way toward avoiding disappointment.
Let's take a look at what the possible stumbling blocks for the Orange could be.
When Michael Carter-Williams landed awkwardly on his ankle in the first half against Rutgers, the Orange Nation held its breath for just a moment. Somehow, he immediately shook it off, but it didn’t look good at first glance.
In the second half, C.J. Fair took a hard shot to the face on a fast break and landed square on his backside. Again, he popped right up and a loud exhale could be felt through the Carrier Dome.
Carter-Williams, Fair and almost every other player on Jim Boeheim’s roster loves to fly through the air—and what goes up, must come down. This team is deep, but not so deep that it can withstand any major injury to Fair, Carter-Williams or Brandon Triche. These are the energy guys, and they need to stay healthy and fresh for Syracuse to prosper.
There’s nothing that can realistically be done to prevent an injury, save for not playing the game, but an injury to any of those three players could prove devastating.
While Syracuse seems to have shaken off the Temple game, nothing in the Big East is assured.
Louisville, which is returning from a trip to the Final Four, is out to prove that last year was no fluke. Coach Rick Pitino has his boys looking like world beaters. The Cardinals play great defense, have fantastic guard play and match Syracuse in depth.
The only aspect of the Syracuse game that is clearly and overly superior to Louisville is the length of the Orange.
Syracuse swept Louisville last year and is the defending Big East champion, but Louisville is the defending Big East tournament champion and rode that wave all the way to an NCAA Final Four appearance, keeping it respectable against an amazing Kentucky team.
If not for a five-point loss to Duke back in November, Louisville would be the top-ranked team in the country, so Syracuse has its work cut out for it and should not expect the Cardinals to just roll over.
The word is out that Syracuse is having a hard time with free throws.
Against Rutgers, the Orange cleaned it up a little bit with a 13-of-18 performance from the charity stripe. This is even better when you factor in Jerami Grant going 1-of-4 from the line in mop-up time.
But this is one game. Including the Rutgers game, Syracuse is a miserable 63.3 percent from the free-throw line, good for No. 309 in the country out of 347 teams. This needs to improve.
On the bright side, however, is a stat that is underreported, which is that Syracuse has actually made 214 free throws, which places the Orange in the top 30 in the nation for free throws made.
The Orange have also missed 124 free throws, but the forecast for free-throw demise doesn’t have to come true, but it is a big concern. The ability to get to the rim can be negated by the inability to convert free throws and could demoralize the team in close games.
It’s not all doom and gloom, but the storm clouds are far from gone.
There are no rumors circulating that anyone on the Syracuse roster is having problems in class, nor are there reasons to believe that anyone will have any problems.
But the name Fab Melo conjures up what can happen when academic requirements aren’t fully met.
Starting with the first loss Syracuse suffered last year as the No. 1 team in the nation against Notre Dame, the absence of Fab Melo was disastrous for Syracuse and came back to sting the Orange in the NCAA tournament.
With no Melo, the Orange pressed forward, but Ohio State proved to be too much in the paint for Syracuse to handle and sent the Orange home after the Elite Eight.
Word on the street is that there’s nothing to worry about, but you never know, and an academic problem, and the benching that ensues from it, can be devastating.
Syracuse has pretty good depth on its baseline, but DaJuan Coleman and Rakeem Christmas have a lot riding on their massive shoulders.
Baye Keita is a complementary player whose purpose seems to be soaking up fouls and grabbing rebounds. These are important jobs, but Coleman and Christmas can be so much more.
Since the departure of assistant coach Bernie Fine, who was key in developing Syracuse bigs, it’s difficult to track the progress of the Syracuse anchors. If Coleman and Christmas can develop into the players they were hyped to be, then the Orange have a great chance to dominate this season.
This means being more aggressive on the boards, taking better shots and cleaning up those awful free-throw percentages. Otherwise, they’re just taking up space in the lane, and Syracuse can’t afford that this year.
Coleman and Christmas seem to be developing, but a little haste in that department should do wonders for the Orange.