The Syracuse Orange are in the middle of another strong season that has them poised to make a long run in the NCAA tournament. After several recent disappointments, fans are hoping that 2013 is the year 'Cuse finally makes it back to the Final Four.
Currently ranked sixth in the nation and sitting with a record of 16-1, there are certainly a lot of things that are going right. Syracuse is one of the best rebounding teams in the country and boasts a top playmaker in Michael Carter-Williams.
However, there are some glaring weak spots that must be addressed moving forward.
After being ranked as high as No. 3 in late December, the Orange have faltered a bit and shown signs of inconsistent play. Stretches of poor shooting and missed opportunities have plagued the team at times throughout the year.
Head coach Jim Boeheim will need to focus on the following issues in order for this season to turn out the way all involved with Syracuse hope it does.
Poor foul shooting has been an unfortunate trend at Syracuse over the past few seasons. The Orange have shot just 65 percent from the foul line over the past five seasons. Things are not any better so far this year.
Currently, the Orange are tied for 259th in the country, shooting a dismal 65.8 percent from the charity stripe.
This weakness has come to the forefront several times so far this year, none more so then in the game against Temple. Syracuse fell to the Owls 83-79, missing key foul shots down the stretch. The Orange made just 19 of 34 free throws in the game.
Foul shooting is one area that can quickly change the outcome of any basketball game. Nothing lets an opponent back in a game like missing shots that should be free points.
If Syracuse hopes to make a run this March, improvements have to be made from the foul line.
The Orange, though they are one of the top teams in the country, have struggled in several games so far this season. Looking at the outcomes of some recent contests, it can be said that Syracuse has played down to its competition and struggled in games that should have been easy victories.
Syracuse's two lowest scoring games have occurred over the past two weeks. Although the Orange average 79 points a game, they scored just 57 in a win against Alcorn State and 55 in a victory at South Florida.
Neither of those teams are considered to be tough competition.
Jim Boeheim needs to be concerned about his team's performance in games against teams that shouldn't present much of a challenge. Syracuse will likely be a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the tournament, meaning that the first two rounds will bring matchups against teams that should be beaten.
As long as the Orange play at a high level, there shouldn't be an issue. However, taking a team lightly and losing focus could result in a huge upset when the "madness" begins.
Much like foul shooting, shots from the field have also been a weakness of the 2012-13 Orange. Syracuse is ranked 78th in field goal percentage, making just 45.6 percent of its shots per game. That's not a solid performance from a team with Final Four aspirations.
As a comparison, Creighton, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina State and Kansas are all ranked in the top 15 in field goal percentage. Syracuse may very well have to go through one or more of those teams in a late round to achieve its goal of a return trip to the Final Four.
Of the regular players, forward Rakeem Christmas leads the team, shooting over 57 percent from the field. However, he is averaging just 6.9 points per game. Standout sophomore guard Michael Carter-Williams, who leads the nation in assists, is only shooting 37 percent for the year.
Despite their shooting woes, the Orange do score points. Their 79 point average is good enough for 19th overall.
Poor shooting teams can really struggle in a one-and-done situation like the NCAA tournament. This issue must be fixed before that time comes.
It seems that Syracuse is experiencing a bit of "deja vu" this season by losing a key component of the team due to eligibility issues.
Last season, center Fab Melo was ruled ineligible just days before the start of the NCAA tournament. The number-one seeded Orange were unable to make up for the loss of their best defender and were defeated in the Elite Eight.
Fast forward to the present, and head coach Jim Boeheim finds himself once again trying to replace an important member of his team. James Southerland was suspended over the past weekend for an apparent academic problem.
This may not be a permanent problem, though. According to Syracuse.com, Boeheim thinks that the issue may be resolved.
Southerland, the first man off the bench in Syracuse's rotation, is the third-leading scorer on the team, averaging 13.6 points a game. He also plays 26.3 minutes per contest.
In their first game without Southerand, a 72-61 victory over Villanova, the Orange turned to freshman Jerami Grant. He did a solid job, scoring 13 points in 29 minutes, both career highs.
The bottom line is that even after that performance, Grant only averages 4.4 a game but leads all other Orange forwards off the bench.
If Southerland is out for an extended period of time, Boeheim may find himself once again struggling to replace important depth on his team.
Aside from poor shooting, especially from the foul line, nothing can equalize a game like turnovers. Common sense says that if a team gives its opponent extra opportunities to score points, a win might be hard to come by.
Unfortunately for Syracuse this season, keeping the ball has been a bit of a problem. The Orange are ranked 152nd in the country, committing 13.4 turnovers a game.
That number has to go down if they hope to make a run come March. In the tournament, teams are often matched up with unfamiliar opponents. Missed shots and turnovers can turn a sure "easy" victory into a fight to prevent an upset.
Ironically for Syracuse, sophomore guard Michael Carter-Williams, who leads the league in assists, is first on the team in turnovers. Carter-Williams turns the ball over 3.6 times a game. Right behind him, at 2.8 a game, is the other starting guard, Brandon Triche.
To date, Syracuse has only one loss and it can't really be attributed to turnovers. However, if the mistake trend continues, the Orange could find themselves in some very close games, especially as the tournament kicks off.