To put it lightly, I'm a die hard Syracuse fan.
Every March, come tournament time, I'm the type of fan who fills out two March Madness brackets—one with my realistic projections (in hopes to win some money), and one where the Orange cut down the net and take home the NCAA title.
And every March is, for the most part, the same. Syracuse is upset in the Round of 32 or Sweet 16 and March Madness becomes harder and harder to watch.
This year is no different. Currently sitting at No. 9 in the AP Top 25 with a 19-3 (7-2 Big East) record, I cannot see Jim Boeheim and the Syracuse Orange making a repeat trip to the Elite Eight, let alone a Final Four appearance in Atlanta.
The main reasons Syracuse will exit the NCAA Tournament early this year: a lack of consistent play, poor free-throw shooting and no serious inside presence.
Lack of Consistency
The biggest factor the Orange lack is consistent, all-around play. As I've always said, Syracuse likes to play to the level of their opponents—which is both a blessing and a curse.
In games the Orange should be easily beating the opposition, for example Temple (who lost to Canisius prior to beating the Orange), then-No. 3 Syracuse played a down to the wire game, ultimately losing to the Owls 83-79 behind Khalif Wyatt's career-high, 33-point performance (Temple has since lost to St. Bonaventure and Saint Joseph's).
After suffering its first loss of the 2012-13 season, Syracuse responded by reeling off eight consecutive wins, including a dramatic 70-68 victory over the then-No. 1 ranked Louisville Cardinals and a down to the wire win at the Carrier Dome versus Cincinnati.
How did the Orange follow-up two consecutive, two-point victories over Top 25 opponents you ask? By losing two straight games to unranked Villanova and Pittsburgh. And in the process of the two game skid, another Achilles' heel of this Syracuse Orange team reared its ugly head: free-throw shooting.
If you're going to win close games, you need to knock down your free throws, and free-throw shooting has haunted the Orange for years.
However, Syracuse received that message too late. Sophomore guard Michael Carter-Williams missed the front end of a one-and-one that would've more than likely sealed a victory for the Orange over Villanova on Jan. 26, ultimately leading to the Wildcats' 75-71 overtime victory over the 'Cuse.
The Orange have only two players on their roster currently shooting over 80 percent from the charity stripe: C.J. Fair (83 percent FT) and redshirt freshman Trevor Cooney (81 percent FT). Fair is the only starter averaging at least 80 percent, while Cooney sees limited court time—just 13.5 minutes per game.
Guards Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche, who do most the ball-handling, average just 72 percent and 74 percent, respectfully. Big men Rakeem Christmas (65 percent FT), DaJuan Coleman (44 percent FT) and Baye Keita (48 percent FT) are all shooting miserable free-throw percentages.
Come March, who will the Orange call upon to knock down free throws in order to advance?
No Inside Presence
The Orange have plenty of outside shooters...when they want to.
Brandon Triche can go off from distance when he chooses to, as evidenced against Louisville where he was five for seven from beyond the arc, but rarely ever does.
James Southerland, the team's most dangerous three-point threat at 37.5 percent, remains benched after being declared ineligible in January. Sharpshooting Trevor Cooney has yet to find his stroke from the outside, but when (if) he does—watch out.
However, what the Orange are desperately lacking is a dominating frontcourt.
Rakeem Christmas, the 6'9", 242-pound sophomore was the No. 2 rated center of the 2011 recruiting class, but is only averaging 6.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per contest. Christmas has very few offensive moves when getting the ball in the paint, with most of his points coming off offensive boards.
Backup center Baye Keita puts in solid "hustle minutes" off the bench, but provides nothing offensively for the Orange. The 6'10", 215-pounder is easily pushed around by stronger, more physical opponents and has poor hands, which is crucial when you have the nation's leading assist leader, Michael Carter-Williams, on your team.
Freshman DaJuan Coleman (5.0 PPG, 4.4 RPG) is currently out nursing an injured left knee.
If Jim Boeheim and the Orange wish to make a deep tournament run come March, they must first improve many parts of their game. Otherwise, like in previous years, this year's Syracuse team will be another underachieving bunch.
Even more reason to improve, what better way to leave the Big East than with a National Championship?