Syracuse Basketball: 5 Ways Orange Must Improve Before March
A possibility exists that Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim doesn’t know basketball, by his definition.
Back in November, Donna Ditota of the Syracuse Post-Standard reported a conversation Boeheim had with a group of reporters. He was speculating his team’s outlook for the upcoming season after saying goodbye to Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche and James Southerland when he remarked,
I think the height of foolishness is to think that we're going to win 29 games and lose 2 or something like that. When you lose those two guys? And you're playing a freshman guard and a sophomore guard that didn't play last year. I don't know what people see. Maybe I don't know basketball, I guess.
With all apologies to coach Boeheim, it looks as if his tea leaves may have betrayed him.
With only eight games left in the regular season, No. 1 Syracuse (23-0, 10-0 ACC) is off to its best start in school history and just may hit that 29-win mark.
It’s easy to understand Boeheim’s reasoning; it just didn’t work out that way. The ACC is not as strong as it has been in years past, which has allowed his players to learn on the job. They’ve handled adversity well and shown an eerie calm thanks primarily to their freshman phenom, Tyler Ennis.
Canadian-born Ennis has been a godsend. His coolness in crunch time is more reminiscent of his fellow countryman Martin Brodeur, than it is of his contemporaries. With his steady hand and a cast of characters who believe in his ability to lead their team, the Orange have a chance to be a very special team when March comes around.
But they’re not there yet.
The ACC may not be as deep a conference as the Orange are accustomed to but there are still a few tough road games ahead, including Pittsburgh on Wednesday, and Duke, on Feb. 22.
There is also the injury to Baye Moussa Keita, who sprained his knee against Clemson and did not practice on Monday. With DaJuan Coleman out for the season with a knee injury, the Syracuse options at the center position are dwindling.
As the top-ranked team in the country, there are only a few holes in the Syracuse game. With just eight games left until tournament time, look for the Orange to address those holes and fine-tune their front-runner status.
Here are some areas the Orange will have to address before the big dance.
Get the Bench Going
Coach Boeheim has been able to go with a short lineup for most of the year.
With Coleman out, Michael Gbinije and Keita became the only two bench players Boeheim went with consistently, as Jerami Grant was thrust into a starting role.
With Keita’s status up in the air, the Orange may go from having 15 fouls at the center spot to only five with Rakeem Christmas. Grant is expected to put in some time at the center spot and Orange fans may get to see some on-the-court training of 6’8” Tyler Roberson.
Roberson is a freshman and averages about eight minutes a game. For most of the season, he was used in blowout wins exclusively, but he’s logged minutes in each of the Orange’s last five games.
When and if Keita comes back healthy, Roberson could go back to watching games from the bench, but for right now, he needs to get his sea legs and be ready to help his team.
Keep Trevor Cooney Involved
Redshirt sophomore Trevor Cooney blossomed this season into one of the best three-point shooters in America. His 14 points per game are second on the team in scoring and he is the only Orange player to average more than one three-point shot made per game with 3.1 each outing.
Aside from a couple 2-of-12 performances earlier in the year, Cooney’s been very consistent. He works hard on defense, averaging 2.2 steals per game, and when Syracuse is on offense, he spends the possession making cuts and running through screens in an attempt to get an open shot.
Teams have caught on to his act and are shadowing him, but even when playing against a box-and-1, he’s still finding ways to get open.
Even if Cooney isn’t shooting the ball, Syracuse needs the threat of him shooting. He frees up the rest of the offense and he demands the respect of defenders.
Over his last three games, Cooney’s made 14-of-21 from the outside, showing that he can bounce back from an off night as he made 0-of-5 in the preceding game.
Whether it’s calling plays for him, setting screens or using him as a decoy, Cooney is as important as anyone on this team. As players such as Jerami Grant are breaking out and making a name for themselves in the postseason to possibly up their draft stock, the Orange need to keep Cooney involved early and often.
Adapt the Perimeter Defense
While many teams attempt to shoot over the Syracuse 2-3 zone, most have difficulty because they force their shots or wait too long and take a desperation shot.
Duke and a few other schools have started employing a different strategy. They are using a player with his back to the basket at the high post, which is a common attack against the zone, but as soon as the player receives the ball, he flashes a pass out to a shooter who is already in position.
Prior to this season, teams would get that shot out of the high post by getting the zone moving through inside-out passing. This isn’t the first time teams have tried this strategy, but it's becoming more prevalent.
Duke made 15 threes using this tactic, which is an extraordinary amount, and it’s worth a second look.
Whether it’s taking away the high post, flashing defenders out to shooters when the ball comes in or just keeping their hands up, the Orange players are going to have to find better ways to defend the perimeter.
C.J. Fair Must Continue to Lower His Turnover Numbers
While Tyler Ennis is the pilot of this team, C.J. Fair is its best and most important player. This is because he can get a score in every way possible, including with his back to the basket.
If there’s an area where’s he’s had difficulty, it’s been holding on to the ball. This is a minor criticism but Fair leads the team in turnovers per game by a large margin with 2.6 per game. He’s done a good job of lowering that number, which was close to four per game, but continuing that trend is important.
When Fair loses the ball, it seems to be most often when he receives the ball in the lane and tries to maneuver through a double team and when he tries to create his own shot on the baseline.
Fair is as smooth as they come but dribbling is not his strongest skill. Continuing the downward trend of turnovers per game can only help.
Keep Rakeem Christmas out of Foul Trouble
As stated earlier, the Orange are without DaJuan Coleman and could be without Baye Moussa Keita.
This means that Rakeem Chritsmas’ role has become magnified.
With less fouls to give, as the bench does not go that deep in regard to big men, Christmas will have to play a headier brand of basketball to make sure he can help his team by not getting into foul trouble.
Christmas has only fouled out of two games this season but they’ve come in the last four games. He was also in foul trouble in the Clemson game on Sunday, with four fouls.
Christmas is a strong defender and extremely athletic for his size. The Orange desperately need him on the court, so making sure he keeps his defense as clean as possible is terrifically important.