As the Syracuse Orange head into D.C. to play in what will undoubtedly be the toughest game of the season (so far), it does so with what may appear to be a serious flaw.
The lack of a true, clutch closer.
The closer is, unquestionably, the player who’s hands the ball is in at the end of a close game. When a clutch shot is needed, you better believe the closer is the one who will step up and want—nay—demand that the ball is in his possession.
Ideally, the best type of closer is a guard or swingman who has exceptional ball handling, the ability to drive and finish, and the skill to pull up and nail a jump shot. They also need that factor that makes them clutch—that unbeatable confidence.
There are exceptions, naturally, with the most pronounced one being a dominant big man who can bully his way into a game-winning field goal with a fabulous post move.
Kansas has its closer in Sherron Collins; Kentucky with John Wall; Villanova with Scottie Reynolds. Heck, even Syracuse had a pair last year with Flynn and Devendorf.
This isn’t last year though, so what about this Syracuse Orange team? Well, they don’t necessarily have the ideal closer.
We saw it when Wes Johnson tried to take that position in the Louisville game. Granted, he’s not playing at 100 percent physically, and it’s really the first time all season that he’s attempted to be that guy.
That being said, it’s no secret (especially this deep into the season) that Wes is not the greatest ball handler. If there’s one aspect of his game that needs serious improvement, it’s his ability to shake a defender and drive to the basket and finish.
There’s no doubt he can finish when he receives the ball up close. However, when driving from the top of the key or long corner and trying to shake a defender, Wes hasn’t been very successful at any point in the season so far.
He tried it in the Louisville game, and while it was a valiant effort, the shot he ended up taking had no chance of going in.
So who else could it be? Let’s take a look at all the prospects. In fact, let’s take a look at the whole seven-man rotation (sorry Mookie) and see if the ‘Cuse has that ideal closer.
We’ll start again with Wes, since he is considered far and away the best player on this team. He’s got a solid jump shot that deserves respect from the defense, and when he’s close to the rim his gifted athleticism can take over and he can wriggle his way to a basket or electrifying dunk.
However, as stated above, his ability to drive is suspect at best. With the ball in his hands at the end of the game, a defender can crowd him, and while using his length alone he can get the shot off, it’ll no doubt be a tough, contested jump shot.
There simply is little reason to respect his driving game yet. Opposing coaches will make sure his players know this, and will be much happier forcing him to drive the ball. He may be the best player, but he is not the ideal closer.
How about the glue-man of this team, senior captain Andy Rautins? There are so many great things Andy does on the court it’s hard to believe there’s a flaw in his game. However, like Wes, it’s his ability to drive and finish.
There’s no question Rautins can shoot it. However, he is not very good at creating his own shot, and has never been known for his ability to drive and finish. If he’s driving, he’s usually looking to dish it off. We even saw it at the very end of the Louisville game. Rautins was dribbling around with the clock ticking down, closely guarded, and had to create his own shot.
Since the defender didn't have to respect his driving game, Rautins was contested and forced up an ugly looking three-pointer. It missed badly and that was basically the end of the game. Rautins, then, is not the ideal closer either.
What about the big guys? I’m going to group both Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson into the same category here. They both just aren’t quite aggressive, confident, or dominant enough in a late game situation to put the ball in one of their hands and expect a brilliant post move and score. Obviously, neither of them is taking a jump shot, so they also cannot be considered ideal closers.
Back-up point guard sensation Scoop Jardine? Scoop is both aggressive and confident, although sometimes to a fault (UConn game anyone?) but has shown the ability to drive the ball. He’s got decent handle, and can finish at the hoop.
However, Scoop’s jump shooting still leaves a lot to be desired. He has shown at points during this season to be able to hit the wide open three, and has perfected the transition stop-and-pop from the free throw line. However, defenses will sag off him at the end of the game to take away his driving, and will force him into a deep shot in a pressure situation.
This is just not Scoop’s game right now. His three-point attempt at the end of the Louisville game was awkward and missed badly. Although he can drive, his inability to consistently hit a pressure, long jump shot means he is not an ideal closer.
With all the great freshmen in college basketball recently, it wouldn’t be surprising if a freshman was the best choice as a closer. However, starting point guard Brandon Triche just isn’t there yet. He’s shown his aggressiveness this season and can finish decently at the hoop. He has even shown a nice shooting touch when open, but he’s just not consistent enough.
There’s also the confidence issue. He hasn’t been playing great in the Big East, and it would be hard to trust him with the ball to create and take a big, late game shot. However, if his game continues to improve, I can easily see the role of the ideal closer going to him in the next few years. Right now though, he’s just not ready.
That leaves Kris Joseph, the sensational sophomore who came out of nowhere this year. He has improved his game dramatically and is one of the biggest reasons for the team’s success so far.
There’s no doubt he has the ability to drive and finish—in fact, he is probably the best on the team at doing that. However, like Scoop, he still needs a lot of improvement on his jump shot, even though he has shown the ability to hit the wide open three occasionally in a few games this season.
At the end of the game though, it’s an easy defensive plan. Sag off him and force him to take a long jump shot.
So there we have it.
While Joseph reminds me most of the ideal closer, he still has a lot of work to do on his jump shot and clutchness to earn that spot. This leaves…well, no one. A serious weakness that can and will be exploited in future close games.
I’ll end on a positive note though, and leave two things to think about.
A big reason why not one player has had to show that clutch factor is because this team has been so dominant. They’ve won a majority of their games by double digits, and in games where it has been relatively close they have been able to hit clutch free throws (that could also become an issue) and there’s absolutely nothing weak about that.
I thought we were going to see it in the UConn game, but we all know how that turned out. We only needed to wait one more game though, and this weakness was exposed when Louisville won at the Carrier Dome.
More importantly though, perhaps the real closer on this team is…the team itself. A closer by association, if you will. With the amount of assists this team racks up a game, it’s realistic to think that the best option may be a set play to get someone like Rautins or Johnson an open shot.
Along those lines, Rautins can definitely drive and dish, as can Triche, and all the forwards and centers on this team can finish close to the basket. I believe at this point a set play is the best option this team has.
One thing is for sure. With the quality opponents remaining on the schedule, we may see, more than once, just what this team is made of when it comes to that clutch shot.
If all else fails, they can always call up Kyra Sedgwick.