Jim Boehaim, Syracuse head coach
The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team is in a tailspin.
After starting the season 18-1, the No. 12 Orange have lost five of their last nine, with No. 10 Louisville and No. 7 Georgetown looming.
Even DePaul (11-17, 2-13 Big East), which will play the last Big East game ever in the Carrier Dome on March 3, could be licking its chops.
That’s a far drop for a team that had, and may still have, Final Four aspirations.
Syracuse (22-6, 10-5), after leading the Big East standings for most of the season, finds itself two games behind Georgetown with three games to go and would need to beat Louisville and DePaul and hope for a loss out of Georgetown and Marquette just to have a shot at tying for the league title.
So what’s happened to this hyped squad of pre-NBA talent?
It starts with the zone defense that has been a trademark for Syracuse for the duration of coach Jim Boeheim’s tenure. Up to and including parts of this season, the zone has been an impregnable force, only exploited on occasion by coaches who studied it and were heady enough to exploit it, such as Connecticut’s former head coach, Jim Calhoun.
The biggest problem that arises in the zone is lapses in positioning. The zone is a cohesive unit and when one player is out of position, the whole unit breaks down. In the loss to Marquette on Monday night, Rakeem Christmas and James Southerland were both guilty of positioning problems, allowing for slashers to get running shots at will.
This is just one problem. Others have arisen that need to be fixed before the conference tournament or Syracuse, once a lock for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, could find itself with a No. 5 or No. 6 seed, making tournament play much more difficult.
Let’s take a look at what Syracuse has to prove it can accomplish before the Big East tournament.
James Southerland, who was inactive for six games in January and February due to an academic issue, was struggling from the three-point line for the three weeks leading up to his hiatus.
Starting with the loss to Temple on Dec. 22, when Southerland made neither of his two attempts, he had only one game in which he hit more than one three-pointer. That game was against South Florida, where he shot 3-of-9 from three-point land.
Since his return on Feb. 10nagainst St. John’s, Southerland has shot well, but the shooting has not translated to wins. In the six games Syracuse has played with Southerland back in the lineup, the Orange are 3-3.
During that span, Southerland made 20 of his 48 attempts from beyond the arc, or 41 percent.
The rest of the team made 19 of its 71 attempts, or 26 percent.
When Southerland gets in a rhythm, his teammates take it as a cue to fire up their own threes. The problem is that none of them, save for C.J. Fair, are consistent three-point shooters.
Syracuse has to use Southerland as the key to opening up the lanes by drawing out defenders and letting the slashing players attack the basket.
Syracuse has to show that it can blend well with Southerland’s talents or its offense will continue to suffer.
In Syracuse’s last two games, which were losses to Georgetown and Marquette, the Orange had a problem closing up holes in the zone.
The guards did a decent job on the opposing guards, but opposing forwards made a mockery of the Syracuse defense.
The Orange take pride in their ability to shut down the opponent’s ability to score, but with Marquette’s Davante Gardner putting up 26 points and Georgetown’s Otto Porter, Jr. putting up 33 points, some flaws need to be addressed.
C.J. Fair is an able defender, but Southerland and Christmas have to do more on the blocks. Repeated matador defense and silly fouls have spelled doom for the Orange in the last two games. The team played well all season on defense until recently, so it’s possible this is an anomaly, but Louisville won’t take any pity on the Orange on Saturday.
Syracuse center DaJuan Coleman is ready for a return after knee surgery and could absorb some fouls that will allow the Orange to play a little more aggressively on defense and shore up the holes that have been exploited as of late.
In Syracuse’s last three losses (Marquette, Georgetown and Connecticut), the Orange’s opponents won a strategic battle at the free-throw line.
Not only has Syracuse shot a poor 63 percent from the free-throw line while its opponents have shot over 80 percent in those losses, but the Orange are also losing the battle of getting to the line.
In all three losses, the Orange only attempted 33 free throws combined, while their opponents attempted 71 free throws. The Orange did not sink more than eight free throws in any of the losses for a total of 21, while their opponents sank 57 freebies.
In contrast, Syracuse’s last three wins showed the Orange having greater success in both attempts and percentage from the free-throw line.
In the three wins, Syracuse’s opponents made 34 of their 53 free-throw attempts for 64 percent, while the Orange connected on 48 of its 64 attempts for 75 percent.
If Syracuse is to succeed come tournament time, it has to make a concerted effort to win both of these battles. Driving the lane and not settling for threes is the first part. Secondly, the shots have to go down when they get to the charity stripe.
Senior guard Brandon Triche is the de facto leader of this team.
His success has generally translated to Syracuse wins while his failures, particularly from the three-point line, have contributed greatly to losses.
In Syracuse’s last four losses, Triche has had a terrible time from the field. Against Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Georgetown and Marquette, Triche shot 4-of-14, 3-of-15, 4-of-13 and 4-of-10, respectively. That includes going a combined 1-of-22 from the three-point line.
Syracuse has enough talent that it can overcome a bad game by Triche, as it did against Notre Dame on Feb. 4, when Triche only made two field goals and finished with seven points including zero three-pointers made out of five attempts.
Syracuse cannot, however, overcome a bad game by Triche when his teammates are going bad. This is what being a leader is all about. Triche could take a tip or two from C.J. Fair in his approach to the game.
When Fair sees that the team has gone cold from outside, he takes it upon himself to get to the basket and force the issue inside for a change of pace. This is supposed to be Triche’s role as the team’s leader.
That’s not to say he’s incapable, but he hasn’t always shown this is his team.
He needs to make a statement. Duplicating his 23-point, six-rebound effort in the rematch against Louisville this Saturday would be a great start.
Sophomore forward Rakeem Christmas had a great game against Notre Dame on Feb. 4.
The blue-chip recruit went 6-of-9 from the field for 12 points, grabbed five rebounds and blocked four shots. He was a defensive presence and looked like he was having a coming-out party.
In the six games since, he has averaged 2.8 points per game and has barely been a factor except for a six-rebound performance against Connecticut and an eight-rebound performance against Georgetown, both Syracuse losses.
When Christmas doesn’t establish himself down low, opponents tend to cheat and play away from the basket on defense. Christmas could fix a handful of Syracuse’s offensive problems by just being more assertive. He’s only attempted 17 shots combined in the Orange’s last six games.
Christmas has shown he can do some damage down low, albeit sporadically. It’s time for him to show what he’s made of.