Syracuse Basketball: 5 Questions for Orange's Home Stretch in ACC Play
It seems like just yesterday the Syracuse basketball team was gearing up for its first run through the ACC.
Now, the regular season is all but behind us, and it will be March the next time the Orange take the floor. Saturday's trip to Virginia is shaping up to decide the regular-season ACC champion as the Cavaliers handled Miami on Wednesday. Virginia now stands at 15-1 in conference with Syracuse right on its heels at 13-2.
With just three games remaining before the ACC tournament and a little over two weeks until Selection Sunday(!), let's sort out some burning questions for the stretch run of ACC play.
Can the Orange set themselves up for a deep tournament run? How will the team's health affect the rotation? We'll tackle these questions and more in the upcoming slides.
Can They Get the Offense on Track?
Orange fans are dying to see more of the above from Trevor Cooney.
This is standard fare after Cooney buries a three after getting set up by a teammate. Lately, however, this has been a rare sight. Cooney's shooting touch has been off, and it was never more apparent than Monday night when he was clanking open three after open three.
But the offensive struggles don't rest solely on Cooney's shoulders. The Orange are shooting only 44.4 percent as a team on the season. And the worst of it has come lately. Over the last five games, the team has made only 37.5 percent of its attempts.
Syracuse rode its defense to the Final Four last year, and this year's version of the 2-3 zone is good enough to get the job done again. But you still need to be able to put points on the board to win. If the Orange continue to miss easy shots like they did at Duke, they could end up heading home earlier than they want to.
Can They Lock Up a No. 1 Tournament Seed?
The top teams in the country will always strive to be a No. 1 seed in the tournament. It is a well-earned reward for an excellent regular season.
But this year, more than any other, it would be especially advantageous for Syracuse to get on that No. 1 line.
If the Orange get a top seed, it would likely slot them in the East region. That would send the team to Buffalo for the early round games, and then to Madison Square Garden for the regional final.
Orange fans would love to see their team not even have to leave the state to get to the Final Four. Buffalo is an easy two-and-a-half hour drive from Syracuse, and the Garden has always been Syracuse's second home. Orange fans always came out in force for the Big East tournaments there.
Joe Lunardi's most recent bracket has Syracuse as a No. 1 seed, but we all know things can change. A win at Virginia could all but cement Syracuse's chances, as winnable games against Georgia Tech at home and at Florida State come after the trip to Charlottesville.
Will Everyone Stay Healthy?
Depth has been a problem for Syracuse for the majority of the season.
DaJuan Coleman was lost for the year early on. Then Baye Keita missed time because of a knee sprain. Now Jerami Grant is dealing with back issues, and he missed the entire second half of Syracuse's last game.
Keita is back, but during the game at Maryland he seemed to tweak the knee again. He stayed in the game, but it is still worth monitoring moving forward.
Grant returned to practice Wednesday, according to Syracuse.com's Mike Waters, and said he should be ready to go this weekend.
The Orange simply cannot afford to have another player go down this late in the season. The rotation is likely to stay at seven players, as freshman Tyler Roberson isn't likely to get much run in the tournament.
Syracuse's tournament hopes have been derailed in the past by key players missing time. Arinze Onuaku went down in the 2010 Big East tournament and missed the NCAA tourney, when Syracuse bowed out to Butler. Fab Melo was ruled ineligible before the 2012 tournament, and the Orange definitely missed the Big East Defensive Player of the Year.
That sound you just heard was Syracuse fans slamming their fists because I brought this up.
Leading another team with legitimate national title aspirations, Jim Boeheim needs his full complement of players down the stretch.
Which Rakeem Christmas Will Show Up?
When Baye Keita went down, Rakeem Christmas seemed to relish the pressure of being the only center on the squad.
In the three games Keita missed (he only played two minutes against Boston College, so we're counting that as a missed game), Christmas averaged 10.0 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.7 blocks in 36.3 minutes. He even put the Orange on his back against N.C. State and put up a 14-and-12 with seven blocks and the steal that led to the winning bucket.
Then Keita came back, and so did the old Christmas. Over the last two games, Christmas is averaging 3.0 points, 2.0 rebounds and 0.5 blocks in 14.5 minutes. Christmas couldn't stay disciplined on defense and foul trouble forced him to hit the bench.
For Syracuse to be as dangerous as possible, the Orange need Christmas to be closer to the player he was when Keita was out. He's not going to all of a sudden be a Julius Randle-type post player, but he can protect the rim, help out on the glass and get easy buckets inside when teams forget about him.
They're going to pump fake you, Rakeem, so you have to stop falling for it. Wait for the shot to go up, then put it in the fifth row.
Can They Win One Convincingly?
Once, just once, can the Orange step on an opponent's throat?
Syracuse has made a habit of playing games down to the wire. St. Francis, Duke, Boston College, Duke again, Maryland, N.C. State...you get the idea.
The Orange were in control of the Maryland game, up double digits with about five minutes left. They ended up winning by two.
Jim Boeheim has had at least a partial hand in that. He is always determined to slow the game to a snail's pace to protect a late lead, instructing his team to stand and pound the ball at midcourt to use up the entire shot clock. That often leads to a desperation shot as the shot clock is about to expire.
But still, C.J. Fair can't always be relied on to hit a near-impossible step-back three and Trevor Cooney can't always hit a turnaround with one second on the shot clock to keep a lead.
Syracuse has to find a way to get better shots late in games, and the defense can't allow open threes or other opportunities for teams to get back in the game. The team can't switch to cruise control, no matter the score.
The Virginia game will more than likely be another close one. But Georgia Tech coming to town provides a good opportunity for Syracuse to remember what it's like to win easy. The Yellow Jackets are 13-15 and 4-11 in the ACC. It will be Senior Day, and C.J. Fair and Baye Keita's last home game. That should be more than enough motivation to play well.
A decisive victory can give the team all the confidence it needs heading into the postseason.