Syracuse Basketball: 5 Improvements Orange Must Make Before NCAA Tournament
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
The Syracuse men’s basketball team has nine games left in the regular season before it plays in its final Big East Tournament and then, the NCAA tournament.
The No. 9 Orange (19-3, 7-2 Big East) will move to the ACC next season, and nothing would please Syracuse fans more than riding off into the sunset with an NCAA crown.
For that to happen, the Orange will have to address a few key issues, first of which is whether or not senior forward James Southerland will be allowed to return to the court. Southerland has missed the last six games due to an academic suspension, but will have his appeal heard Friday.
Southerland was the team’s second-leading scorer at the time of his departure, helping Syracuse to a 15-1 record, with the only loss coming against Temple in Madison Square Garden.
Syracuse has gone 4-2 in Southerland’s absence, beating No. 1 Louisville and No. 21 Cincinnati, but managed to drop back-to-back games for the first time in almost two years with losses to Villanova and Pittsburgh.
A convincing 16-point win against Notre Dame on Monday stopped the bleeding, but all is not right.
Last week, Syracuse lost freshman forward DaJuan Coleman to knee surgery for at least a month, which forced coach Jim Boeheim to start freshman forward Jerami Grant.
Grant has played admirably in his starting role, but the Syracuse bench is depleted without him.
James Southerland was the first player off the bench before his suspension. Without Southerland, Grant assumed that role, with Trevor Cooney and Baye Keita following suit. Now Cooney has become the sixth man.
Cooney has yet to find his scoring touch and Keita has filled in as more of a warm body than as a baseline presence. This has caused coach Boeheim to keep Grant on the floor for all 40 minutes of each of the Orange’s last two games.
Even with the adversity of injury and suspension, Syracuse remains immensely talented.
Sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams has impressed as the nation’s leading assist man and is fourth in the NCAA in steals. Senior guard Brandon Triche has been a very good leader as the team’s leading scorer and junior forward C.J. Fair leads the team in rebounding and free-throw shooting.
At 19-3, Syracuse is in a good position to get a high seed in the NCAA tournament. In order to make a run to the Final Four, Syracuse will have to turn its mix of good and bad into a mix of good and good.
Starting with the game against St. John’s on Sunday, here are five ways Syracuse can improve its chances in the NCAA Tournament.
Clean Up Holes in the Zone
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The 2-3 zone is the engine that runs the Orange.
Syracuse thrives off of turnovers and turns them into quick transition baskets with the length and speed of guards Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche.
Some teams, such as South Florida on January 6, try to shoot over the zone, believing that made shots will force Syracuse into a man-to-man defense. South Florida attempted 22 three-point shots but only connected on six.
The reality is that any team that hits its threes can win, but it’s difficult to hit enough threes against Syracuse. This is because of Syracuse’s ability to create turnovers and rebound.
Syracuse’s quick hands and thief’s mentality translate to the Orange being No. 9 in the nation in steals.
Syracuse’s overall length and ability to cause bad shots make the Orange the 12th-best rebounding team in America.
Those two factors equate to limited possessions and fewer looks from beyond the arc.
Some teams, such as Pittsburgh on February 2, understand that inside-out movement of the basketball, overloading on one side of the court and misdirection of the ball create openings in the zone.
Pittsburgh passed the ball with ease and made the zone ineffective. This could be written off as a bad game against a team that got hot, but Syracuse had similar problems in the first half against Louisville on January 19.
Louisville was able move the ball and create easy layups in the first half against Syracuse with good screening and positioning. Syracuse made adjustments at halftime and sealed up the passing lanes, which helped put Syracuse in a position to steal away a two-point win.
If Syracuse is to prosper, it must continue the good work of the zone. Studying the Pittsburgh game tape should help, too.
Get More Production from the Freshmen
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With freshman DaJuan Coleman out for a month and James Southerland out for the last six games, freshman Jerami Grant has been given an opportunity to start.
In those six games, Grant has averaged 10 points and six rebounds per game.
At 6’8”, Grant can fill in down low, but his shooting range allows him freedom to play away from the basket. He is essentially replacing two players and will have to pick up slack, albeit a little bit.
The rest of the Syracuse squad has to absorb the absences as well, which brings us to Trevor Cooney.
Cooney, was fortunate enough to practice with Dion Waiters, Scoop Jardine and the rest of the Syracuse roster while he was a redshirt freshman last season. He is known as a three-point specialist, but shoots under 30 percent from beyond the arc and hasn’t found his groove.
James Southerland filled the role of outside dagger for the Orange, but so far Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams have been forced into the outside role with Cooney’s inability to be a consistent and reliable shooter.
That day may come when Cooney's stage fright goes away. For Syracuse’s sake, it needs to come soon. A solid Cooney pulls the defense out to the perimeter and creates the type of elbow room that allows Syracuse’s slashers to thrive.
The Charity Stripe
Michael Carter-Williams attempts a free throw.
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Syracuse’s loss to Temple on December 22 exposed a major flaw in the Orange game.
They couldn’t hit free throws.
In the four-point loss, Syracuse missed 15 shots from behind the charity stripe and conjured images of the 2008 Memphis Tigers, which was an incredibly talented team, but had an inability to hit free throws, which cost them the national championship against Kansas.
By the time January 6 rolled around, Syracuse was 14-1 and had just beaten South Florida by 11, but the free-throw woes continued.
On the season, Syracuse shot free throws at 63.1 percent, good enough to make them No. 309 in the country at free-throw percentage.
In the seven games since South Florida, Syracuse is shooting an amazing 78.9 percent behind the line.
The team has jumped from No. 309 to No. 205 in free-throw percentage. If Syracuse shot 78.9 percent the entire season, it would be the No. 2 free-throw shooting team in America.
This is a great improvement and Syracuse has to keep the momentum to if it wants to win those close tournament games.
Better Ball Control
Michael Carter-Williams gets his pocket picked by Pitt
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Michael Carter-Williams is a known quantity, but his sloppiness with the ball has to improve.
Carter-Williams leads the nation with 8.5 assists per game, but he turns the ball over 3.7 times per game.
Brandon Triche turns the ball over 2.6 times per game, but doesn’t add the passing dimension of Carter-Williams, even though he seems to be the better ball handler.
To put it another way, Carter-Williams has turned the ball over 81 times in 22 games, but he has 188 assists to save face.
Triche has 57 turnovers with only 77 assists for penance.
Teams that play pressure and intensified defense, such as Louisville and Pittsburgh, will wreak havoc if Syracuse’s guards are not able to keep the turnovers to a minimum.
Get James Southerland Back
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James Southerland’s return would solve a handful of problems for the Orange.
He would bring back 13.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.
He would give the Orange the true three-point threat that’s been missing in his absence.
He would bring senior leadership back to the bench.
Without Southerland, Syracuse is a guard-driven team.
With Southerland, Syracuse has a well-balanced attack.
They need him back desperately.