James Southerland is back for the Orange
Southerland, who missed six games due to an unspecified academic issue, won his appeal to return to the court and provided 13 points. Southerland did not connect on any of his four first-half attempts, but he was solid in the second half, hitting three of his five three-point shots and giving Syracuse the boost it has been missing from the bench in his absence.
St. John’s, playing without its head coach, Steve Lavin, whose father passed away overnight, took its marching orders from assistant coach Rico Hines.
Hines’ squad played from behind the entire game but managed to pull within five points at 48-43 with 11:46 left in the second half after trailing by 12 points just two minutes prior.
A 10-2 run by Syracuse, capped off by back-to-back triples by Southerland, helped the No. 9 Orange (now No. 6) pull away for the 19-point victory.
Syracuse (20-3, 8-2 Big East) has eight games left in the regular season and is looking to make a run at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Southerland coming back is just one of the catalysts that could help that happen.
Other notable factors, including improved play my Michael Carter-Williams and high-percentage shooting across the board, contributed to the Orange victory.
However, some other areas of the Orange game were causes for concern.
Let’s take a look at what we learned from the win against St. John’s.
At the 17:26 mark of the first half, Michael Carter-Williams jumped up in the air at the top of the key and threw an impossible-to-handle pass to Brandon Triche at his right, around the foul line extended and turned the ball over.
Carter-Williams leads the nation in assists with 8.5 per game but also turns the ball over 3.6 times per game. That pass to Triche looked like Carter-Williams was going to have more of the latter than the former.
One minute later, MCW hit a redeeming three and took command of his game.
Carter-Williams only turned the ball over one more time and played a very solid game. He tied C.J. Fair for the team lead with 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting, including 3-of-5 from beyond the arc.
He added eight assists for the second consecutive game, which is notable since he hadn’t distributed that many since a January 2 game against Rutgers, when he had 10.
MCW also grabbed four rebounds and stole the ball a season-high six times, moving him into third place nationally in that category with 3.1 per game.
Carter-Williams has only turned the ball over six times in his last three games after turning it over 19 times in his previous four.
This is a very good sign for the Orange.
Early in the first half, Rakeem Christmas received a pass from C.J. Fair on the block and took the ball in strong.
It looked like Christmas was going to build off of the good work he established in the previous game against Notre Dame when he aggressively put up 12 points to go with five rebounds.
Christmas’ next shot would not come until there were five minutes left in the first half and that would be it. No more shot attempts and barely a mention on the score card, save for four fouls, of which his third was a bone-headed play with 0:39 left before halftime.
In four of his last six games, he has attempted two or fewer shots. In eight of his last 10 games, he hasn’t attempted a single free throw.
There doesn’t seem to be any physical reason for Christmas’ lack of aggression, but the numbers don’t lie. Christmas does not like to go to the net.
Luckily for Syracuse, his foul trouble wasn’t hurtful. Christmas played only 18 minutes, partially due to his foul trouble, but his timidity around the basket leaves one to wonder whether there’s more to the story.
Syracuse shot an impressive 29-of-54 from the floor, but a closer look at those points shows an interesting source.
They love shooting jumps shots.
What they seem to forget is that they are very good inside. Syracuse went 10-of-12 on its layups, meaning that they shot 19-of-42 away from the basket.
This team is too tall to settle for jump shots and needs to find a balance of scoring when the jump shots don’t fall. Brandon Triche is the shortest starter, at 6’4”. Michael Carter-Williams is 6’6”. Rakeem Christmas is 6’9”. Jerami Grant is 6’8”. C.J. Fair is 6’8”. James Southerland is 6’8”. Baye Keita is 6’10”.
The only other player on the team who gets any playing time and is shorter than 6’6” is Trevor Cooney, who, like Triche, is 6’4”
Syracuse made six of its first seven layup attempts. Grant’s layup with 7:04 left in the first half, and the Orange leading by 15, marked the last time they would attempt a layup until the 7:21 mark of the second half on a C.J. Fair miss.
That’s 20 straight minutes without a layup attempt.
Syracuse is 85th in the nation in field-goal percentage. Not exactly Larry Bird-type numbers.
There is no good reason this team is not going to the basket, especially when it is one of its strengths.
Including the 9-of-10 the Orange shot from the free-throw line against St. John's, Syracuse is shooting nearly 80 percent from the charity stripe in its last eight games.
The only miss came from C.J. Fair, who leads the team with 82.4 percent from the free-throw line.
Syracuse, which after 15 games only shot free throws at 63 percent, has seemingly cleaned up its woes from the line. This is what makes Syracuse’s lack of aggression toward the basket so perplexing, as it did not attempt a free throw until there were eight minutes left in the first half ,and that was on a Triche fadeaway in the key.
The only time a Syracuse player was fouled driving to the basket was C.J. Fair at the 15:48 mark of the second half.
Getting better from the free-throw line is an important step moving toward the NCAA tournament. To continue to get better, this team will need to get to the line a little more.
Junior Baye Keita has been used sporadically as a defensive replacement who can block shots and absorb fouls.
At 6’10”, he doesn’t have to leave his feet to block shots, but he got a little out of his element defending Chris Obekpa around the 13-minute mark of the second half.
With Syracuse leading 48-39, Obekpa took a pass from Phil Greene IV on the block. Keita came out to defend, but a half-hearted shoulder fake got him to step to the left instead of standing his ground and allowed Obekpa to pass him like a bull passing a matador for an easy dunk.
To his credit, Keita hit all four of his shots for eight points and grabbed four rebounds.
His four fouls, however, could have haunted Syracuse with Christmas also in foul trouble.
Keita has been sparingly used but is a solid defender. He must remember to stay within his game and let the action come to him.
Back on January 21, Syracuse pulled out hard-fought win against Cincinnati.
What made the game difficult for Syracuse was the execution of the zone defense.
Not Syracuse’s, but Cincinnati’s.
Cincinnati played a tough zone against Syracuse, and it looked like the Orange forgot how to play against the defense Jim Boeheim patented. Syracuse took 18 three-point shots and made six, proving something it already knew; shooting over the top is not the way to beat the zone.
Luckily for Syracuse, it kept the turnovers to a minimum, with only six, and eked out the two-point win.
The word was out, however, that Syracuse might struggle against the zone.
St. John’s employed a zone defense which Syracuse quickly cut through with solid inside-out passing and forced movement from the defenders, creating open shots.
Either practice has cleaned up the offense against the zone or perhaps there wasn’t even a problem. Regardless, the Orange looked good against the zone.
With 5:57 left on the clock in the first half, Syracuse led 32-17.
Syracuse would not score another basket, save for two James Southerland free throws, until Brandon Triche hit a three-point shot with 0:11 left, making the score 37-24 at the half.
That’s almost six minutes between baskets.
For the first eight minutes and 34 seconds of the second half, Syracuse only hit four shots and converted only one free throw.
It doesn’t seem that the game was ever in question, but the guards need to recognize lulls in play and force action, be it by driving the lane or calling a timeout to set something up.
What they don’t need to do is what they did on Sunday, which is throw sloppy alley-oop passes and forget how to dribble-drive.
Syracuse is a team that can go on runs with its ability to steal the ball and create transition. Scoring lulls can neutralize this quality and need to be recognized while they are happening and ended.
Junior C.J. Fair, the southpaw junior from Baltimore, MD, played another outstanding game for the Orange.
He can score with thunderous dunks, as he tried against St. John’s with a so-called offensive foul that would have been the highlight dunk of the year in college basketball.
He can hit threes, which he did against St. John’s from the corner, and is statistically the best three-point shooter for Syracuse.
He’s also the team’s best free-throw shooter and rebounder.
He is athletic in the style of a Hakim Warrick and has the sense of urgency of a Gerry McNamara.
Most importantly, he never hurts the team with bad plays or stupid fouls. In fact, Fair has never fouled out of a game in his college career.
Fair is a ham-and-egger who plays hard every game and is arguably the best all-around player on the Syracuse roster.
The Carrier Dome
With the win over St. John’s, Syracuse extended the longest active home winning streak in Division I with 37.
Syracuse plays its next two games on the road against Connecticut and Seton Hall but will get to play four of its last six games in the friendly confines of the Carrier Dome.
The last team to beat Syracuse in the Carrier Dome was the Georgetown Hoyas on February 9, 2011.
With Syracuse moving to the ACC next season, the Orange will play those Hoyas for one last time in the Carrier Dome as Big East rivals on February 23, which could be the largest crowd to ever watch a basketball game at Syracuse.
James Southerland’s return, while it took until the second half to manifest, was as pleasing a sight as Orange fans have had this season.
With the memory of Fab Melo's two academic suspensions still fresh on their minds, a Southerland permanent suspension would have put the Orange nation over the edge.
Southerland wasn’t as active on the boards as his five rebounds per game indicate, but neither was anyone except for C.J. Fair, who had nine.
Southerland was good but not great. Luckily for the Orange, they don’t need him to be great; they just need him to be there.
And there he shall be.