Syracuse Basketball: Midseason Report Card for the Orange
The No. 9 Orange (19-3, 7-2 Big East) extended their winning streak at home to 36 games, the longest such streak in Division I. The Orange ended their two-game losing streak after going almost two years without losing consecutive games.
Syracuse has nine games remaining before the Big East tournament, with five being at home. Of Syracuse’s final five games, four come against ranked schools. Syracuse has fared well against ranked opponents, winning all four contests, but future success could be elusive.
The Orange are still without senior forward James Southerland, who is on academic suspension pending a hearing this week. Freshman DaJuan Coleman had surgery on his left knee and will be out for at least a month. Holes in Syracuse’s 2-3 zone were exposed against Pittsburgh.
Even scoring is down with Syracuse not topping 70 points since a 72-61 win against Villanova on January 12.
But all is not doom and gloom.
In Southerland’s absence, coach Jim Boeheim has been forced to play freshman Jerami Grant more with delightful results. In the first 16 games of the season, with Southerland in the lineup, Grant averaged 11 minutes per game. In the six games since Southerland’s suspension, Grant’s minutes have tripled to 33 per game, including 40-minute efforts in the last two contests.
Against Notre Dame, Grant scored a career high of 14 points and has been a godsend for Boeheim, who has been limited with a seven-man lineup the last two games.
In addition to Grant’s ascension, sophomore Rakeem Christmas has shown signs of life with his 12-point effort against Notre Dame. Christmas was aggressive around the rim, grabbed five rebounds and blocked four shots. He gave the Orange the baseline presence they had been missing, as in the loss to Pittsburgh when Christmas did not attempt a shot the entire game.
There are several other factors that will either contribute to Syracuse’s success or be blamed for its demise. Let’s take a look at these factors and see what kind of grades Syracuse has earned thus far.
The starting frontcourt for Syracuse has been serviceable, but there is definitely room for improvement.
C.J. Fair has been the shining beacon for the Orange baseliners. He is the team’s best rebounder with 7.1 per game and, at 83 percent, is the team’s best free-throw shooter.
He's been so good at the free-throw line that he's missed more than one free throw in a game just three times this season. In those three games, he missed two free throws.
He is second on the roster in points per game with 13.9 and, as an added bonus, shoots 40 percent from beyond the arc.
Fair has seven double-doubles on the season and is a hard worker on the boards and on defense. That’s the good.
Fair’s frontcourt mates, DaJuan Coleman and Rakeem Christmas, have room for improvement.
Coleman and Christmas are good complementary players. Combined, they score 11.5 points per game and pull down 9.8 rebounds. The 6’9” duo has helped Syracuse become the 12th-best rebounding team in the NCAA with 40.7 per game.
Neither player has fouled out of a game this season, but that is not because they are great defenders. Coach Jim Boeheim has shown little patience with both of their sloppy play and has shown a quick hook, resulting in Coleman and Christmas averaging only 14 and 22 minutes per game, respectively.
As mentioned earlier, Christmas has shown signs of life with his increased scoring and aggressiveness around the basket. He could begin to bring defenses inside more and help create more opportunities for the Orange guards.
Coleman’s knee surgery forced Boeheim to look to his bench for a viable replacement. He found Jerami Grant.
Grant has performed well in Coleman’s absence. He can rebound well and has a very good medium-range jump shot. While just a freshman, Grant positions himself well in the 2-3 zone and could end up a fixture in the starting rotation.
The Syracuse frontcourt has tremendous length and has improved team rebounding exponentially from the previous season. Last year, the Orange ranked 124th in the nation with only 35.3 rebounds per game. That tied Syracuse with Loyola (Md.), Green Bay, Campbell, Appalachian State and Stephen F. Austin.
This year’s strong rebounding is a plus, but the lack of scoring and playing time for Coleman and Christmas is a hindrance. Without Fair, Syracuse would need some extra credit to pass this course, but he has played well enough to bring the grade over the curve.
Starting frontcourt grade: C+
The backcourt tandem of Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams has been the engine that moves the Syracuse offense and defense.
Triche, a senior, has assumed the role of team leader and paces the Orange in scoring with 14.5 points per game. He has passed the ball well to the tune of 3.5 assists per game and contributes 3.5 rebounds per game.
Triche has shown the ability to carry the offense, as he did against then-No.1 Louisville with five threes in the first half.
With the added pressure of not having three-point specialist James Southerland available, Triche has taken the three-point responsibilities of the team, but has gone cold in the Orange’s past two games, hitting none of his 10 attempts.
Triche can be prone to making foolish mistakes, as he did against Notre Dame, throwing the ball away on two ill-advised passes when the Irish switched to a zone defense. Triche’s lapses in judgment are more than balanced out by his quick hands on defense and incredible athleticism.
Michael Carter-Williams, or MCW, is another story.
Carter-Williams has been the nation’s leading assist man with 8.5 per game and ranks fourth in the nation in steals with three per game. Carter-Williams is not a good shooter, only hitting on 36 percent of his attempts, but he has a flair for the dramatic.
This flair came out against Louisville in a game that can summarize MCW’s season. After turning the ball over eight times with poor dribbling and passing against Louisville’s pressure defense, Carter-Williams nailed a three-pointer to put Syracuse ahead with five minutes left and scored nine of the team's final 11 points.
In the closing seconds, MCW stole the ball twice, one of which led to his own breakaway dunk to help Syracuse pull off the upset.
Both Triche and Carter-Williams have a few minuses, but their positives far outweigh the negatives.
Starting backcourt grade: A
The Syracuse bench has been limited to go only two or three deep for the majority of the season.
This is partially due to the absence of James Southerland, who is the team’s third-leading scorer, but came off the bench in the tradition of Dion Waiters last season.
DaJuan Coleman’s knee surgery is the other reason for the light bench.
Jerami Grant has played well in his bench duties, but only played 11 minutes per game until being recently thrust into a starter’s role due to Coleman's and Southerland's unavailability. Grant’s shooting touch and aggressive rebounding has tripled his minutes.
Trevor Cooney has been used sparingly this season and only contributes an average of 4.5 points in his 13.5 minutes per game. Cooney is supposed to be a three-point specialist off the bench, but has struggled at times and has only made six threes in seven outings. He shoots just below 30 percent from beyond the arc.
Baye Keita is the only other Orange player who gets significant minutes. Keita is a decent rebounder, but has been primarily used to eat up fouls.
If Southerland returns and Coleman makes a quick recovery, the Syracuse bench is very good.
As it stands, Cooney and Keita are the bench and that does not bode well for the Orange.
Bench grade: D
Syracuse has succeeded with strong guard play and stifling defense that has resulted in a strong transition game.
The forwards, save for C.J. Fair, have underperformed, but Rakeem Christmas is showing promise and Jerami Grant has stepped in nicely, filling in as a scorer and a rebounder.
The Orange have had key come-from-behind wins against Louisville and Cincinnati, giving the team confidence that it can win close games. But when the defense is broken, as it was against Pittsburgh, the chances of winning are greatly diminished.
Syracuse fans will find out Thursday if James Southerland will be reinstated. If so, the pressure comes off of the guards to hit three-pointers and the offense can open up.
If he doesn’t come back and DaJuan Coleman’s repaired knee takes longer than expected to heal, the rest of the Orange season could be tough to stomach.
Syracuse enjoyed strong back-to-back wins against Louisville and Cincinnati and looked like an easy No. 1 seed in the tournament.
The Orange followed up those wins with consecutive losses to Villanova and Pittsburgh, looking very pedestrian.
The Notre Dame victory may have put the Orange back on track for a high seed, but that won’t happen without some bench relief.
Overall grade: B+