The Syracuse Orange lost four of their last five games with postseason tournaments just around the corner.
In those five games, the Orange only managed 57.4 points per game. Their once-flashy offense, fueled by transition baskets, disappeared, and in its place, a half-court offense that struggles to get good looks at the basket.
I am not referring to this season’s Syracuse team, but last season’s team. That team, led by seniors Brandon Triche and James Southerland and sophomore/NBA rookie sensation Michael Carter-Williams, started the season 18-1, highlighted by a road win against then-No. 1 Louisville, which went on to win the national championship.
That team, after beating Louisville, went 6-7 the rest of its final Big East regular season, finalized by a 61-39 tail whipping on the road against its greatest rival, Georgetown, and entered its final Big East tournament with its tail between its legs.
That team decided that it wouldn’t get pushed around anymore.
From then on, it stopped worrying about scoring and remembered its comfort zone, rather its 2-3 zone. After beating Seton Hall and Pittsburgh, the Orange exacted revenge upon Georgetown with a 58-55 overtime win.
Syracuse, in its fourth game in four days, would face off against Louisville in the Big East final. The Orange had their way with the Cardinals during the first half and led 35-22, but they weren’t done there.
Four minutes and 10 seconds into the second half, the Orange raced out to a 45-29 lead and looked poised to win their sixth and final big East tournament title.
As luck would have it, the game imitated the season, and what looked to be a fantastic start turned into a lackluster finish with the Orange giving up a 27-3 run and losing the game 78-61. The Orange ran out of gas while the Louisville full-court press caused confusion. Syracuse’s shots ceased finding the basket, and Louisville couldn’t miss.
The loss, however, didn’t matter. The Orange had confidence again, and it would serve them well in the NCAA tournament.
In the NCAA tournament, the Syracuse defense came alive. The team that couldn’t stop anyone to close the season was all of a sudden stopping everyone. The Orange’s record-breaking defense carried them all the way to the Final Four and nearly got them to the championship game for what would have been their fourth game against Louisville.
Had it not been for a questionable offensive foul call against Brandon Triche in the closing moments of the game, Jim Boeheim might have already won his second national title.
But he didn’t, and just like the Orange did in the regular season and the Big East tournament, a hot start would end with frustration and thoughts of what could have been.
This season, in similar fashion, the Orange jumped out to their best start in school history. They continued their inspired defensive play of the NCAA tournament and did not lose their first game until two weeks ago, along with their No. 1 ranking.
Now, Syracuse is fighting the demons of last season. A hot start has turned into a whimper down the stretch, and Orange fans are left scratching their heads.
Losers of four games in their last five, the Orange have only a road game against Florida State, on March 9, to rid the bugs of the last two weeks.
Last season, the Orange inexplicably could not find the basket at the end of the season. This season, the Orange have struggled for almost the entire season to find the basket, averaging 68.1 points per game.
This year’s team isn’t as deep as last season’s, is far less of a threat from the outside and seems to have lost its inside game.
Trevor Cooney is struggling to get his stroke back, Jerami Grant is ailing with a bad back and the entire team is having trouble not turning the ball over in the closing seconds of close games. So what’s there to be optimistic about?
The Orange can look to last season.
Faced with similar failings, Syracuse went to its bread-and-butter defense. Each victory gave the Orange a little more confidence and a little more of an edge. With that, the scoring came, and as quickly as the Orange lost their mojo at the end of the season, they gained it back in the postseason.
Right now, the college basketball world looks at Syracuse as a team that can be had. It’s on the Orange’s faces, and their play isn’t doing anything to dispel the belief.
But all it takes is one little spark.
Jim Boeheim has been in situations like this long before most of us were a good idea. He knows that getting Jerami Grant back healthy changes this team. He knows that his defense guides this team. He knows that he has two All-American candidates in Tyler Ennis and C.J. Fair to lead this team.
While the Orange lost four of their last five games, it’s worth noting that those are the only four games they’ve lost all season and that they didn’t get their 26 wins by accident.
Yes, this Syracuse team bears a lot of similarities to last season...and that might be a very good thing.
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