As a loyal Syracuse fan since the mid-1980's I can say that 2011 has not brought much joy to the Orange basketball team. If one only rewinds back to early January they would find a much different outlook for the team that was 4-0 in the Big East including victories over Notre Dame and St. John’s to start the New Year. However, then as the schedule and the teams got tougher the Orange got squeezed. The overall results were as gaugy as the snowfall totals with SU concluding January with four straight losses; the futility continuing to spread into February. No one was prepared for this drastic shift downward in both team moral and gameplay with the exception of Jim Boeheim. The Hall of Fame Coach reiterated the fact that this year’s team hadn’t been tested and weren’t as good as their record would seem to indicate. Despite his team's impressive 18-0 start which saw them rise as high as #3 in the Nation, Boeheim was quick to dismiss thoughts of a #1 Seed or the notion that this year's team was better than last year’s. According to Jim the expectations placed on SU's team last season were warranted and deserved. Fans and critics alike strongly believe that barring a key injury (Onuaku) that they would have reached the Final Four, and possibly even played for a National Championship. He was wary of their early season success and knew that the Big East would provide the barometer as to how good they really were, and then those questions about the team would answer themselves. The 2005 Basketball HOF Inductee knew that the Big East would be a monster conference again this year, and that parity would reign supreme further blurring the line between the top and bottom tiers of the league. Boeheim almost seemed to predict his own team's collapse or rather a crash back to reality. However, I doubt he expected things to get this bad so quickly. There’s little doubt that the Syracuse Orange have struggled lately, and the loss on Saturday to Louisville 73-69 just added insult to injury. The psyche of this team is at a low point, and they haven’t been able to find the answers. This latest loss made it their 6th L in their last 8 games, and yet the team doesn't seem to be responding to Boeheim's challenges in the same way that SU teams of the recent past have. These players seem too caught up in their own media hype and seem more preoccupied with their dunk or pass being a highlight on ESPN’s SportsCenter. They also tend to display their emotions more visibly than past teams whether they are positive or negative and it is impacting the decision making ability often in key moments. Their opponents seem to be feeding off the general lack of enthusiasm that has seemed to plague the ‘Cuse during this losing streak. There have been too many uncharacteristic mental lapses, lack of focus, and overall effort plays to list. These sudden hiccups tending to occur at the most inopportune portions of games, and unfortunately there isn’t one culprit to blame. The entire team has to take the blame and learn from their mistakes so they aren’t repeated. One of these reasons has to lie in the lack of experience in certain players positions in the 2-3 Zone. The biggest issue in this Zone right now lies in the middle, where they have asked Freshmen Fab Melo and Baye Moussa-Keita to replace one of the great defenders in Senior Arinze Onuaku. Fab Melo doesn't have the conditioning nor experience at this time to be effective in the middle and his lack of activity and discipline has shown. Boeheim doesn't trust Fab at this time for more than a handful of sparse minutes. I feel that the fan expectations on the big man are unfair and unrealistic. His conditioning will improve, but not until the Offseason, and he will develop into a force if he stays in College for several years. This year is definitely a development year as far Jim and his coaching staff is concerned, but the trouble also lies at the top of the Zone. Keita is a threat defensively with the ability to alter shots, but his lack of offensively skills has stalled the offense on occasions where he needs to keep a defense honest. The guards are not as active and the zone lacks the fire and intensity of last year's team. They often defend with their hands down making it easy for opponents to shoot over them and hit a high percentage of their shots.
The other issue with this year’s team right now is the glaring fact that the team doesn’t have a go-to-guy in clutch situations. The last few games during crunch time this has been evident. The team has been so excited to score that they’ve either turned the ball over or took a low percentage shot that had little chance of going in the basket. It is not often that a team with such a high profile (5<sup>th</sup> winningest program in the history of College Basketball) is left without a big time scoring threat, but the Orange really do not have that this year. Last season they had the luxury of relying on two players; the clutch shooting of Andy Rautins, and the ability to count on Wesley Johnson to make a big play on either end of the floor. Even the last few years before they the team had scorers or players that wanted the ball at the end of games (i.e. – McNamara, Flynn, etc.). While Kris Joseph is a great talent, but it is asking too much for him to change the way he plays his game, he used to be a slasher and now I feel that he shoots too many outside shots. The team is undefined in their roles at key moments in the game, and because of this one play or string of sequences has cost us close games that in the past we would have won. However, during this inauspicious streak the team's effort and performance haven't been entirely obscene. At least they've varied in range from several embarrassing losses intertwined with many thrilling and heartbreaking ones.
It has really been a tale of two seasons thus far in the 2010-11 campaign for Boeheim's SU squad, and a rollercoaster ride for fans who have become accustomed to winning. In fact, a losing streak had actually become such a rarity for the Syracuse Basketball program of the present day that fans actually felt obligated to boo them at home when they were #4 in the Country! This is just one example of the crazy expectations that are now put on the Orange and I happened to witness this up-close during the debacle that was the Seton Hall game at the Carrier Dome. The expectation for that particular game from a SU fan's perspective was an easy victory. However, I personally didn't feel that it would be a blowout, but rather a close game. The Pirates had very different plans for the Orange, and rather SU was beaten badly in front of their home crowd. Every shot seemed to fall for Seton Hall with many happening to be of the three point variety and once they took a double-digit lead the game was out of reach on that particular evening. The defense for SU was non-existent, and at one point frustrated fans actually booed the Orange, and I must say that I have never been to an SU basketball game where the Orange were booed (The Orange Football team under Greg Robinson was another story for another time though), and I found it incredibly shocking! They were booing a team that was 18-2 and just a week removed from the Top 5 for being down 20 points to a really hot shooting team at home. It made me realize how impatient fans have become and the need for instant gratification that seems to have permiated all College Sports. If your team doesn't compete for a title each year, then they had a bad season, and that is definitely not always true. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes and the learning experience overall that wins and losses are often the incorrect gauge for a team. I still think that a team like BYU or San Diego State who only have a single loss, but haven't really been tested have a greater chance of being upset in the earlier rounds of the NCAAs then a team used to battling in the Big East, and will be ready for any situation. As I look back now I am glad I wasn't one of the fans participating in the booing. I didn't feel it was necessary and it just didn't seem appropriate despite the poor performance that night as after all it was only one game! But this loss in particular stung many fans and made them stop and wonder how good Syracuse was, and if perhaps they weren't as good as their national ranking indicated. Several weeks later I think the team's ability lies somewhere beween their 18-0 start in 2010, and 2-6 slide thus far that has followed in 2011. They are still 20-6 overall which is impressive, but it will be that Big East record of 7-6 that is less than stellar, and ensures them no chance of repeating as Regular Season Big East Champions.
It is well documented by ESPN and other Sports media outlets that Syracuse, who had been 18-0 just a handful of weeks ago (they were one of the last four unbeaten teams left in college basketball), and were being given a #1 Seed in Mock NCAA brackets. However, as a longtime fan of the team I knew the high ranking was deceiving, and as discussed earlier Jim Boeheim warned fans to taper the heavy expectations of previous seasons particularly last season's team who were so polished, experienced and unselfish. They were the typical keys ingredients needed to become special, and there was no way of replacing a once in a lifetime ensemble like that squad overnight. The loss of a complete do-it-all player who created matchup nightmares like Wesley Johnson, the sharpshooting capibilities of Andy Rautins, and enormous presence of Arinze Onuaku roaming the Zone were all huge and irreplacement losses. Yet, their departures left room for those to step up and take their places such as Kris Joseph stepping out of his 6th man role and becoming the Star. Unfortunately it is difficult to learn on the job in the Big East and this has shown in their more recent performances and decline in FG defense and points allowed per game. They are going through growing pains in the 2-3 Zone and right now teams have several blueprints on how to beat them at their own game. They are allowing almost free reign and endless options for their opponents to score by taking either inside or outside. Big East teams have responded by hitting nearly 50% from three point range in the recent games against Syracuse compared with fewer than 40% in the games before their first defeat at the hands of Pittsburgh at the Peterson Events Center. This close loss seemed to change the Orange despite being without their star player Kris Joseph. As in the prior game Joseph hit his head violently on the hardwood while driving the lane, and experienced concussion like symptoms forcing him to leave that game. He was held out of the game for precautionary reasons, and the rest of the Orange players weren't ready to step up and handle the pressure of that moment. The following game dubbed "Beat 'Nova II" in the Dome seemed to demoralize SU further and was a factor in the breakdown loss to Seton Hall that began the downward spiral in the rankings.
Bracket guru's seem to agree that at least 11 teams have the possibility of hearing their names called on March 13, 2011 during the annual CBS NCAA Tournament Selection Show. Once again the Big East is the juggernaut of College Hoops, and in what was considered a down year for the league that lost players like Luke Harangody, Scottie Reynolds, Greg Monroe & DaSean Butler. Critics will say it is the biggest conference in College Basketball so naturally it will have the most teams make it, but that isn't the case as the Big Ten and Big 12 were considered tougher conferences at the beginning of the season. Few expected UCONN to break out or that St. John's would make a leap under a new coach in Lavin, but Notre Dame has surprised as well. There are so many different storylines going on within this conference that it can be mind numbing to think about all the successes that each team has experienced so far this year and there is still March. Georgetown began 1-4, and haven't lost since then, while the Orange have been the exact opposite starting 4-0 atop the standings, and the team now stands at 7-6 in a logjam with other teams.
Despite the increasingly grim outlook by many CB critics I feel they may have finally found the lineup that works for both the team’s Offense and Defense. The emergence of C.J. Fair has been the one of the few bring spots during SU’s recent struggles, and having Rick Jackson replace Fab Melo in the middle makes the Zone much more viable, and quicker to the ball. The lineup that seemed to have finally lit a spark under this team was the combination of Brandon Triche, Scoop Jardine, C.J. Fair, Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson in the 2nd Half of the Cardinals game. While this is a smaller lineup that lacks height and length in the Zone it does allow the team to be quicker on both ends of the court, and then they can sub in Dion Waiters, James Southerland and Baye Moussa-Keita based on matchups and game situations. My final prediction for the Regular Season is that they finish 23-8, winning 3 of 5 down the stretch, but an unstable 5 wins in the last 13 games going into Post Season play. Depending on how they do in the Big East Tournament I believe that they can be anywhere between a #3-#8 when seeded for the NCAA Tournament.
The good news is there is still time to turn things around as their remaining schedule include several winnable contests against Rutgers and DePaul as well as having a chance at revenge in rematchs versus Georgetown and Villanova respectively. This team also needs to understand that last year's squad was one of the best teams ever assembled by Boeheim, and that they are forging their own legacy this year. If the Orange can continue to learn and develop together then maybe they can make their final push towards March and make some noise in the Big East Tournament and NCAA Tournament. I know I will be still rooting for them whether they succeed or fail. GO ORANGE!