The Syracuse Orange sat on top of the college basketball world a little over a month ago.
Going into their game on February 19, they were 25-0, ranked No. 1 in the country and appeared to be ready to make a deep run in the 2014 NCAA tournament.
However, starting with a baffling home loss to Boston College and ending with Saturday's demoralizing 55-53 defeat at the hands of 11th-seeded Dayton, Jim Boeheim's squad let a special season crumble before their and everyone else's eyes.
On paper, the 'Cuse were primed for postseason success. They featured a domineering 2-3 zone defense, were a menacing team on the offensive glass and had outstanding guard play led by freshman phenom Tyler Ennis.
In reality, the Orange lost four of their last six-regular season games, dropped their only ACC tournament contest, and then, after beating Western Michigan in their opening game of March Madness 2014, fizzled against the Flyers in the round of 32.
What happened to Syracuse? How did this season unravel so drastically? Here are a few contributing factors:
Deficiency on the Defensive Glass
For as much size that Boeheim put on the floor this season, Syracuse was not a great defensive rebounding team.
When a team does not control the defensive glass, opponents have excellent opportunities for putbacks and second-chance buckets.
On the year, the Orange's opponents grabbed 31.5 percent of their offensive rebounds, which was No. 175 in the nation.
However, in Syracuse's six losses, their opponents' offensive rebounding percentage rose to 40 percent. Dayton had 11 offensive rebounds on their 27 missed shots.
The Orange's 2-3 zone should have given them good initial defensive rebounding position. But, unless they put a body on someone, boxed them out and went to get the ball, that natural advantage was forfeited and opponents grabbed their share of offensive rebounds.
Shortage of Outside Shooters
All season, Syracuse was very dependent on the outside shooting production of one player, Trevor Cooney.
The 6'4" sophomore was not only their most accurate shooter from beyond the arc (37.5 percent), he also accounted for 53.9 percent of the team's made three-pointers.
Unfortunately for the Orange, Cooney went into a serious shooting slump towards the end of the season.
In Syracuse's first 24 games, he shot 43.3 percent from beyond the arc. Over the last 10 games, he only connected on 16 of 69 (23.1 percent) shots from distance.
During Cooney's decline, no one else stepped up to fill the void. The rest of the team shot 27.1 percent from three during those final 10 games. Tyler Ennis hit 11 of 35 shots (31.4 percent) and C.J. Fair knocked down five of 21 (23.8 percent).
In Syracuse's last eight regular-season games, ESPN's Stats and Info reported that:
Syracuse (has) made 28% of its field goals attempts from 10 feet or longer in its last eight games, including 26% in its five losses. During the Orange's first 24 games (all wins), they shot 37% on such shots. They are 16-0 this season when they make at least a third of their attempts from 10+ feet.
In their game against Dayton, the Orange misfired on all 10 of their three-point attempts. ESPN's Stats and Info pointed out that is "the most missed 3-pointers without a make in its NCAA Tournament history."
Syracuse's struggles were not limited to shots from beyond the arc. The Orange only scored two points outside the paint against the Flyers, with Ennis going 0-8.
Even with a team as talented as this, some outside scoring was essential. Otherwise, teams loaded up the lane and made it nearly extremely difficult to score from down low.
Inability to Close out Close Games
Earlier in the season, Syracuse was known for its ability to come up big in the closing moments of games. They scored buzzer-beaters and must-have buckets as and got defensive stops when they needed them.
After the Orange beat North Carolina State with a last second layup, ESPN Stats and Info described the Orange's end-of-game success in their first 25 games.
This was the 7th time this season that Syracuse has been tied or trailing with 5 minutes left in regulation, winning each. The Orange have outscored their opponents by 43 points the rest of the way in those games with their opponents shooting a combined 6-of-49 from the floor, including 1-of-19 from the 3-point line.
ESPN earlier reported:
When Syracuse is trailing or tied in the final minute of the 2nd half and overtime this season, the Orange have outscored their opponents 17-0 (including 3-0 against NC State). They're shooting 4-for-5 in those situations (first miss was against NC State), while their opponents are shooting 0-for-4.
|Syracuse in Final Minute of 2nd Half/OT - When Trailing or Tied This Season|
But, at the end of the year, Syracuse struggled to get it done in the closing moments of games.
Five of the Orange's six losses were by six points or less. In their first three losses, they were tied or ahead at halftime.
Against Dayton in the last 3:35, Tyler Ennis made three layups, a jumper and three free throws. Inside a minute with Syracuse down one point, Ennis pulled up and missed a jumper and a three-pointer.
What the Orange was able to accomplish previously, they could not get done at the end of the season.
Disappointments and Regrets
Just a month ago, Syracuse was toying with perfection. They were unbeaten three-fourths the way through the 2013-14 season.
If the Orange lost a few games in the regular season, no one was going to be too alarmed. If they did not win the ACC tournament, not too many would show great concern.
But Syracuse's season started unraveling in mid-February and never stopped falling apart.
What could have been special ended in frustration, failure and an early exit from another NCAA tournament.
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