Syracuse Orange Still Undefeated: Grading Each Player's Performance This Season
The Syracuse Orange (No. 3 in both polls) are one of four undefeated teams remaining in Division I basketball, and they have two games this week against Top 10 opponents (Pittsburgh and Villanova).
The Orange (18-0, 5-0 Big East) are off to one of their best starts in school history and look every bit as good as last year's squad that started the year 13-0 before losing to Pittsburgh and briefly earned the No. 1 ranking in the country late in the season.
But after losing three of their best players in Wes Johnson (drafted), Andy Rautins (drafted) and Arinze Onuaku (graduated), is this new group of players overachieving, or are they capable of playing even better?
Here are grades for each individual player in coach Jim Boeheim's rotation and a team grade for Syracuse's performance so far this season.
Kris Joseph, F
Joseph was about as good of a sixth man as there was in the country last season, playing 27.8 mpg and averaging 10.8 ppg and 5.5 rpg on 49.0 percent shooting.
It was assumed he would step in at small forward for Johnson and become the team's go-to offensive player, but Joseph isn't the same player as Johnson.
This year the 6'7", 207-pound forward from Montreal has started every game for the Orange (though he will miss their face-off with Pittsburgh) and seen his minutes go up to 29.9 mpg. He's scoring more (14.6 ppg), but his shooting is down to 47.2 percent, as he's been forced to take some ugly shots late in the shot clock.
Joseph has the talent to be a big-time scorer, and he showed flashes of that ability recently, scoring 103 points over his last five games before injuring his head against Cincinnati and having to leave the game. His three-point shooting is also up to a career-high 34.4 percent, and he's contributing on the defensive end with 1.3 spg.
He'll be expected to shoulder more of the scoring load as the Big East schedule gets tougher in the coming weeks. But the question is, can he do it?
Rick Jackson, F
Jackson didn't have to do much playing in Onuaku's shadow last season, contributing a respectable 9.7 ppg and 7.0 rpg on 59.1 percent shooting in 26.3 mpg. He also chipped in with a steal and a couple of blocks, playing consistently within the zone defense.
He and the former Orange center were very similar players, but Onuaku got most of the touches because he was a better post player.
Now with Onuaku gone, the responsibility fell to Jackson to be the team's go-to scorer in the post. The senior accepted that responsibility and then some, dropping a significant amount of weight over the summer to slim down to 240 pounds so he could endure playing an entire game.
Jackson's minutes have gone way up to a team-high 33.8 mpg, and his scoring has noticeably improved to 13.2 ppg. At the same time he's become one of the conference's premier rebounders, averaging 11.7 rpg and recording 12 double-doubles this season. He's cutting down on his mistakes (career-high 1.48 assist/turnover ratio) and playing outstanding defense (2.2 bpg and 1.2 spg).
The 6'9" forward hasn't just been Syracuse's best player this season; he's been one of the best players in the country and may be a candidate for Big East Player of the Year.
Scoop Jardine, G
Jardine came off the bench for the Orange last season but still got starter's minutes, playing 22.2 mpg and scoring a respectable 9.1 ppg on 48.9 percent shooting from the floor and 38.9 percent shooting from three.
He played primarily at shooting guard but was still one of the team's top distributors with 4.3 apg and a decent 2.25 assist/turnover ratio.
With Rautins gone, Jardine was slated to become the team's starting point guard. He's performed well in his increased playing time (31.7 mpg), but not as well as Boeheim would have hoped.
He's second on the team in scoring with 13.7 ppg and first in assists with 6.1 apg, but he's also turning the ball over a team-high 2.9 times/game. His shooting numbers are also down, with Jardine hitting 44.1 percent of his shots from the floor and only 30.9 percent of his shots from deep.
The main kryptonite for the Syracuse offense has been turnovers, and Jardine is the chief culprit for that. He's turned the ball over 24 times in five Big East games to go against just 32 assists.
Jardine isn't good enough to create his own shot when the offense is struggling, so it's up to him to keep things running smoothly. He's playing with four new players, so there may be a bit of a learning curve. But he has to start making better decisions with the basketball if the Orange are going to go deep into the NCAA Tournament.
Brandon Triche, G
Triche had a strong rookie season for the Orange, playing 21.3 mpg and scoring 8.1 ppg on 50.0 percent shooting.
He wasn't really a true starter because Jardine played more minutes off the bench, but the 6'4" guard from nearby Jamesville, NY was one of the team's best shooters. He shot 40.0 percent from three and was a terrific finisher.
Triche isn't a true point guard, and his deficiencies at the position showed last season. He averaged only 2.8 apg and turned the ball over twice a game. He's still a capable defender with above-average quickness, so he does a good job of closing up passing lanes.
He seems more comfortable this season as a shooting guard and is playing like a Big East veteran. In 27.3 mpg he's averaging 10.1 ppg while shooting 41.7 percent from the field and 35.5 percent from three. He's started all 18 games so far and is doing a better job taking care of the ball, averaging 3.2 apg and only 2.1 turnovers/game.
Triche isn't the same type of knockdown shooter that Rautins was, but he's better at driving to the basket and has a dangerous mid-range game. He's one of the more complete players on the roster and seems to get better with every game. His ball-handling is still in need of some work, though.
Fab Melo, C
Melo was considered one of the top recruits in the nation and the shining star of Syracuse's rookie class. Instead, the seven-footer has been a colossal disappointment and is still struggling to adjust to the college game.
Despite starting every game this season, Melo is only playing 11.2 mpg and is usually the first player off the floor.
He's been nonexistent on the offensive end, scoring only 2.3 ppg on 54.8 percent shooting, and has been held scoreless eight times this season. He's not much better on defense either, picking up only 1.9 rpg and nearly a block per game.
Melo is the biggest player on the Orange roster, and his size is a key to executing the 2-3 zone defense. It's too early to give up on him because this is someone who has only been playing basketball for a few years and was reportedly suffering from an Achilles injury earlier this season. But Melo needs to show some massive signs of improvement if he wants to stay in Boeheim's rotation.
Dion Waiters, G
Waiters was the other prized recruit coming in for Syracuse this season. The 6'3", 214-pound guard from Philadelphia has enjoyed a strong season coming off the bench for Jardine and Triche.
He's playing 15.5 mpg and averaging 6.8 ppg while shooting 44.6 percent from the floor and 34.1 percent from three-point range. He doesn't contribute much else either on offense or defense, but he brings terrific energy off the bench, especially when the offense looks stagnant.
Waiters might be the most talented guard on the Orange roster, but for now he's just getting initiated into Big East play. He should see more playing time later this season.
James Southerland, F
Southerland barely saw the court last year, appearing in only 13 games and playing just 7.5 mpg. He's already exceeded both those marks this season, playing in 15 games and averaging 16.5 mpg.
The 6'8", 205-pound forward has supplanted fellow sophomore Mookie Jones as the first forward off the bench and is averaging 6.1 ppg on 44.4 percent shooting. He's the best deep threat on the team and is shooting 38.3 percent from three-point land.
He's also a much improved rebounder, raising his game average from 1.2 rpg to 3.3 rpg.
Southerland creates mismatches because of his combination of size and shooting, and Boeheim has taken full advantage of that. Southerland has seen playing time at both small forward and power forward and should continue to be the first forward off the bench as long as he performs.
C.J. Fair, F
Fair is a 6'7", 200-pound athletic swingman out of Baltimore. He's shooting 50.9 percent this season and averaging 4.6 ppg in 13.3 mpg of action, with most of his points coming on put-back dunks.
He missed three games earlier this season with an injury, but he's already proved that he's good enough to play with the big boys.
He may be cut out of the rotation by Southerland come tournament time, but he'll likely be a leading candidate to replace Joseph in the starting lineup if and when Joseph declares for the draft or graduates.
Baye Moussa Keita, C
Keita was almost an afterthought in Syracuse's star-studded recruiting class, but he's ended up playing more than any of them. The 6'10", 220-pound center has filled in admirably for Melo off the bench, playing 17.9 mpg.
The Oak Hill Academy product doesn't have much of an offensive arsenal (2.7 ppg), but he's got incredibly long arms and terrific shot-blocking ability (1.3 bpg). The Orange don't need Keita to score; they just need him to man the middle of the zone.
Keita's playing time will likely suffer if and when Melo puts everything together, but he still gives the team outstanding depth and size.
The Orange struggled early in the season, winning by only single digits against weak opponents like William & Mary, Michigan and Iona.
Boeheim was uncomfortable with Syracuse's high ranking to begin the season, saying that his year's squad of players, which included four rookies, hadn't proven anything.
But Boeheim knew the kind of talent that was on the roster, and the Orange finally showed it, beating North Carolina State and Michigan State in consecutive games during a non-conference tournament. Syracuse has kept winning and has beaten Big East opponents by more than 11 points per game.
Still, this is a team that can get even better. The Orange have gotten virtually zero production from their centers after having that position be one of their strong points last year.
This year's team has more depth than any recent Orange team, but that's unlikely to last with Boeheim expected to shorten the rotation to seven or eight players later in the season.
Qualifying for the NCAA Tournament is a given at this point. But the Orange don't want to stop there—they have aspirations of winning the whole thing. To do that they'll need more consistent player from everyone on their roster, especially Fab Melo. Most teams don't have the size to give Syracuse any trouble, but that will change as the Orange go deeper into the tournament.
It's not fair to put Syracuse's championship hopes on the shoulders of two rookie centers, but it doesn't look like there's much of an alternative. The Orange fell in the third round last season because they didn't have Onuaku at center, and that'll happen again if Melo and Keita don't show up to play.