Syracuse Basketball

Syracuse Basketball: 5 Questions for Orange in 2014 NCAA Tournament

Justin NeumanContributor IIMarch 20, 2014

Syracuse Basketball: 5 Questions for Orange in 2014 NCAA Tournament

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    Rich Barnes/Getty Images

    The time has come, dear reader.

    The NCAA tournament is just around the corner. I don't count those silly play-in games. Albany won its conference. It shouldn't have to play an extra game just to be able to get run out of the gym by Florida.

    But I digress. The Syracuse basketball team is ready to take the floor just down the road from its home court in nearby Buffalo. The Western Michigan Broncos await the Orange in a No. 3 vs. No. 14 matchup.

    After the Orange stumbled to a 2-4 finish to the regular season and a quarterfinal exit in the ACC tournament, a lot of questions are surrounding the team.

    How far can the Orange go? Can the offense get on track? We'll tackle all that and more in the coming slides.

Will Trevor Cooney Get Going?

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    Rich Barnes/Getty Images

    This has to be the first question that crosses any Orange fan's mind.

    Since lighting up Notre Dame over a month ago, Cooney hasn't been able to buy a basket. He hit nine threes against the Irish. In the 10 games since, he's hit 18. He's attempted 72 in that span, which gives him an even 25 percent shooting clip.

    Cooney simply has to be better for the Orange to have success in the tournament. If he can't make the opposition pay for packing the lane to stop C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant, the Orange might have a short trip home after an early exit.

    The best way for Cooney to get going is to try and get some easier baskets closer to the rim. If he can put the ball on the deck and draw some fouls, he can get some easy opportunities at the charity stripe. From there, seeing the ball go through the net can help make the rim look bigger from deep.

    Or if he's worried too much about going into the trees, Cooney can use the head fake and pull-up after one or two dribbles. That way he can find the rhythm on his jump shot from the elbow.

    Either way, Cooney can't continue to throw up bricks. If he does, Jim Boeheim will have to look elsewhere (Michael Gbinije) for some perimeter shooting.

Which Rakeem Christmas Will Show Up?

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    Rich Barnes/Getty Images

    Rakeem Christmas has been getting that look from Boeheim far too often lately.

    Due to foul trouble, the 6'9" junior has averaged just about 22 minutes a game over the last six contests. He just can't seem to stay disciplined on defense. Orange fans are wishing for more from the junior who has been a starter pretty much since he arrived on campus.

    It's getting to the point where Orange fans are hoping Christmas can steal some of Joakim Noah's talent, Space Jam-style.

    If Christmas continues to have to be replaced by the offensive nonfactor that is Baye Keita, it will put tremendous pressure on the rest of the team to score. All it will take is one of Fair or Grant to have a tough shooting night for it to be curtains for the Orange.

    But if the Christmas who came to play when Keita was out with injury shows up, it will change the narrative altogether. All that guy did was play at least 35 minutes a game when he knew he had no backup. He also played arguably the best game of his career at home against N.C. State, putting up 14 and 12 with seven blocks.

    I've been saying this since early October: If Christmas plays like he is capable of playing, the Orange are nearly unstoppable. He can give them efficient low-post scoring, athleticism on both ends and rim protection that can turn a good defense into the one that carried the Orange to the Final Four a year ago.

What Will the Bench Provide?

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    We know what we're getting from Gbinije and Keita on defense. Gbinije can play three positions, and Keita has plenty of experience in the middle of the zone.

    What changes from game to game is what these two contribute on the offensive end. Gbinije's capable of hitting a timely three (37.5 percent on 40 attempts) or getting a basket in transition. And sometimes Keita is good for a few putbacks if he manages to hang on to the ball.

    But more often than not, Keita's a nonfactor and Gbinije tends to defer to his teammates. Tyler Ennis, Fair, Cooney and Grant average a combined 53.8 points a game. That's 79 percent of the team's average of 68. If one guy doesn't have it, Syracuse's offense can stall.

    Gbinije and Keita are basically all Boeheim is working with off the bench. If they can come in and play quality minutes, it can give the Orange a much-needed boost.

    Which leads us into the next question...

Can They Score Enough?

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    A complete offensive game has been a rare occurrence for the Orange lately.

    The only one they've had recently was the 74-58 dismantling of Florida State to end the regular season. Other than that, any combination of Cooney, Fair and Grant has struggled or been hurt, leaving only one or two others to pick up the slack.

    You can't expect another poor shooting night from Fair like he had against N.C. State. Grant is back healthy, Ennis has settled into his role directing the offense and Cooney is...well...still a question mark at this point.

    But if Syracuse can force some turnovers or otherwise try to get out in transition, it can create opportunities for easier baskets. And when the Orange get into the half court, a good idea might be to look for Grant more often.

    In Grant's two games back to full strength, he has been extremely efficient. In the ACC tournament in particular, Grant was having a field day inside. He scored 19 points on 5-of-7 shooting and hit nine of his 13 free throws. When he got the ball, he generally either scored or got fouled.

    For comparison, Fair took 16 shots in that game and Ennis 18. Of course, the offense is going to run through Fair. But if Fair misses one or two in a row, it's not a bad idea to look Grant's way.

How Far Will They Go?

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    Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

    The biggest question of them all.

    How the Orange play in the opening round could give us a better idea of what kind of run they can make. They should be able to get past Western Michigan. But if the Orange have to grind out another win, they may not make it out of Buffalo. If they win convincingly like they did last year against Montana, it could give them just the spark they need.

    A lot will also ride on the matchup in the round of 32. If Syracuse draws Ohio State, the Orange will be in for a defensive slugfest and it will likely be a race to 50. But if Dayton advances, that will make for a more up-and-down game that certainly favors Syracuse.

    Being so close to home will definitely be an advantage. Syracuse fans have traveled well all year, so it should be a decidedly orange crowd in Buffalo. That should allow Jim Boeheim and co. to at least get to the Sweet 16.

    After that, it's anyone's guess. If Syracuse runs into a Kansas team with Joel Embiid back, it will be as tough a game as there's been all season. If Embiid is still on the shelf or Kansas gets sent packing early, it's a different story.

    Either way, Kansas is a tough team. Andrew Wiggins is as dangerous a scorer as there is, and I think the combination of him, Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden will still be too much for the Orange to overcome.

    Final prediction: Lose to Kansas in the Sweet 16

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