Syracuse Basketball: 5 Questions the Orange Face in Big East Stretch Run

Brian KinelCorrespondent IIIFebruary 11, 2013

Syracuse Basketball: 5 Questions the Orange Face in Big East Stretch Run

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    The college basketball season is reaching its critical time. We're finishing the regular season, and the way things have been going the last month, this stretch run promises to be winding and exciting.

    To say there are no great teams is quite the understatement. Every team has serious questions as evidenced by the number one team losing in each of the past five weeks. That ranking has taken on the jinx of the Madden cover.

    Orange Nation has experienced more than their fair share of turmoil down the stretch these past few years: Arinze Onuaku's knee, Fab Melo and James Southerland's suspensions and DaJuan Coleman's injury. No wonder Syracuse fans wonder what's next.

    All of that being said, here we are at the critical time of the 2012-13 season. What questions abound for the Orange?

    I'm glad you asked.

How Will James Southerland Fit Back In?

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    When the clock is ticking down on your collegiate career, it's quite a blow to miss six games in the middle of your final season. When that season finally sees you as a major contributor to the team, it's doubly difficult.

    That's what James Southerland is returning from. His first game back? It started very rough as he walked the first time he touched the ball and missed his first four shots.

    Then James relaxed.

    He then made four of six from the field and finished with 13 points in the Orange's 77-58 win over St. Johns. He looked terrific, and there should only be positives from his return.

    The Orange have struggled to score in many games this season, especially in the half-court offense. That's where Southerland really helps. In the games he's played in, Syracuse has averaged 79.3 points. In the six games that he missed, they averaged 64.7.

    While it's true that Syracuse's three-point percentage was actually higher without Southerland, 31.1 percent compared to 30.2, they've shot much better overall with him at 46.7 percent compared to 40.5.

    Without him, they've taken four fewer three-point shots per game and nine fewer overall. When scoring is your biggest issue, it hurts to lose a player who does such a good job helping your half-court offense operate.

    Southerland's rebounding and ability to create turnovers on defense will also help the Orange transition game, which is critical to their success.

    Boy it's nice to have him back.

Which Michael Carter-Williams Will Show Up?

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    For all of his success this season, it's important to remember that Carter-Williams is still a sophomore. And, he's a sophomore who only played ten minutes per game last year.

    There has been a lot of discussion about what he needs to do to be successful next year in the NBA. Maybe that's part of the problem. I've not spoken to Michael, so I am not in a position to question where his thoughts are at all. But clearly the focus needs to be on the remainder of this season right now.

    Improving quickness, strength and shooting ability are for the future. Decision making is the topic for today.

    Carter-Williams has been guilty this year of trying to do too much offensively. Looking at his statistics from the three losses tells the story.

    He averages 12.4 points per game but 14.3 points in the three losses. While his rebounding remains the same at 4.7 per game, his assists drop from 8.5 to 4.0 in the losses. Turnovers rise only slightly, 3.6 to 3.7.

    He's taking on too much by looking for his own shot. He's taken 10.6 shots per game for the season but 15.3 in the losses. While he shoots 37 percent from the field for the season, he's only 21.7 percent in the losses. His three-point percentage plummets from 29.9 percent for the season to 14.3 in the losses.

    Carter-Williams need to run this team and make sure that the offense runs smoothly. Clearly the six game absence of James Southerland affected the offense, and now that he's back, Michael needs to distribute more.

How Will Brandon Triche Play Down the Stretch?

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    I spoke earlier about Syracuse's tough fortunes down the stretch the past few years. Those years have been the three that Brandon has been here. This is his last chance to make a run at a championship, something the Orange had a strong opportunity to do in both his freshman and junior seasons.

    Triche has shown the ability to step up when the team needs him. In the three losses he shot more, 14.7 shots compared to 11.5 for the season, and scored more, 18.0 points compared to 14.6 for the season. His other numbers have remained pretty much the same.

    Triche is the team's most experienced player by far, and how he handles the stretch run will go a long way towards determining the Orange's success.

    He needs to make plays. He has deferred to great players in the past. But Rick Jackson, Arinze Onuaku, Andy Rautins, Wes Johnson, Scoop Jardine, Fab Melo, Kris Joseph nor Dion Waiters are walking through the Carrier Dome door.

    It's Brandon's time. How he does in big games against great back courts like Louisville's Peyton Siva and Russ Smith and Connecticut's Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier will tell us how the Orange do.

How Will the Frontcourt Rotation Be Affected by Southerland and Coleman's Return

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    Now that Southerland is back, Rakeem Christmas and especially Jerami Grant are spending more time on the bench. How the rotation works will be critical down the stretch of the Big East season.

    Grant played all 40 minutes against both Pittsburgh and Notre Dame and averaged 33 during Southerland's suspension. He only played 15 minutes against St. Johns.

    During Southerland's absence, Grant averaged 9.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. He only got four points and a single rebound against the Red Storm.

    Christmas averaged 26.5 minutes, 4.8 points and 5.2 rebounds during Southerland's absence. Against St. Johns he only had two points and one rebound in 18 minutes of action.

    The frontcourt rotation will be affected again, assuming DaJuan Coleman's return from knee surgery. He went under the knife on Jan. 29 and is expected to miss four to six weeks. He may very well be back for the Louisville, DePaul and Georgetown games that end the regular season.

    Coleman hasn't had the impact that many expected, with averages of five points and 4.4 rebounds per game. But he does provide a big body and five more fouls to use. Once he returns, minutes will again be effected.

    A case can be made that the frontcourt will be improved with Southerland and Coleman back. Not only is it two more players to use, but their absences gave Grant, Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita valuable playing time.

    I think that will prove to be the case.

How Much Will Trevor Cooney Contribute?

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    Trevor Cooney is the only guard on the bench for the Orange. While he doesn't need to score 15 points or get eight assists every game, he needs to contribute valuable minutes to give Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche a break.

    While he's had some good moments this year, overall he's fallen a bit short of the role he needs to play. That doesn't mean he can't find that role the rest of the way.

    Against St. Johns he only played seven minutes, contributing one steal. Cooney's reputation is that of a great three-point shooter. We haven't seen that consistently enough.

    If he can play 12-15 minutes, make one or two three-point shots and continue to play tough aggressive defense, he will have done his job.

    At times Cooney's has looked as if the game overwhelms him a bit. He plays too fast and doesn't let things come to him. That's what inexperienced players do.

    The Orange needs Cooney to be able to slow down and know that he can handle this level of play. The rest will then come.