In each of the 28 games Syracuse has played this season, Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche have been the guards on the floor to start the game. Dion Waiters is the first scoring option off the bench, usually replacing the guard who picked up an early foul or committed an unforced error.
As the game continues, the two with the most impactful game will get the majority of the minutes, and as we have seen of late – will play down the stretch without hesitation.
Coach Jim Boeheim has touched on the subject all season, re-iterating that he will continue to ride the hot hand at the end of games.
Is that a fool-proof system? Of course not…but it's worked so far.
There are several ways to look at how these guards have played at certain points this season, so we will look at the numbers and trends to this point.
Each of the three possesses a turnover ratio better than 2:1, scores between nine and 12 points per game and is responsible for at least one steal and two rebounds per game. They each average around 22 minutes per game, shoot in the 42-3 percent range overall and remain in the mid-30s from long distance.
So who is better at what?
Waiters can create his own shot better than the other two, while Jardine is the best table-setter of the bunch. Triche is by far the best free-throw shooter of the trio, as well as the biggest. Each play well atop the 2-3 zone.
The attributes make for an interesting decision for Boeheim at the end of games, and it's played out in many combinations in 2011-12. Early in the season, Triche and Waiters held down the fort on the way to gaudy point totals and signature Syracuse runs to bury teams. Triche was the team's leading scorer of the three and made big shots against Virginia Tech, Stanford and then-No. 9 Florida. Waiters was in the middle of his coming-out party, leading the nation in steals and putting up double-figures in five of the team's first six games while Jardine led from the bench.
Once Big East play began, Waiters and Jardine were the duo down the stretch more times than not. Triche was more of a middle-of-the-game shooter with the occasional big-time three to re-capture the momentum for the Orange. Boeheim wanted the ball in Jardine's hands to set up Waiters for the potential game-winner against Georgetown and again in overtime as he prepped Kris Joseph for the eventual game-winner later that night. Waiters again had the chance to end things against Louisville five days later, but could not finish on consecutive drives to the basket in the open court. When free throws became a play during that one-point win on the road, Waiters was left in and missed the front-end of a 1-and-1 after notching what appeared to be a game-clinching steal. It didn't cost SU in the end, as the Cardinals couldn't convert with two seconds on the clock.
Fast-forward to Sunday afternoon at Rutgers, and free throws once again seemed to play a key role. With Waiters and Jardine in the game during crunch time, each missed a pair of free throws with the game in the balance. Syracuse ended up winning by 10 thanks to Jardine's clutch shooting in the final minutes, but Fab Melo and Joseph iced the game at the line. Triche was 1 for 2 with 31 seconds left.
Syracuse will be fine heading into the NCAA Tournament even if it comes up short in the Big East tourney at Madison Square Garden, but the goal for this team is the Final Four at a minimum. In order to get there, the late-game situations will continue to be a topic of discussion since the Orange has not been in many tight games down-the-stretch – so we have to go on what we know.
The constant between the three guards is Waiters. He has been in late during virtually every game, and rightfully so. He is the only player on the roster who can create a shot for himself that still has the ability to set up his teammates well. As for Jardine, he must continue to shine as a distributor. His biggest advantage is his table-setting with Joseph, the off guard and Fab Melo – and that's when SU is at its best. When Jardine becomes a consistent shot-taker, things may not always go how they did against Rutgers. For Triche, the outside shot needs to be a compliment to his attempts at the rim. Boeheim has said all season long how the junior doesn't know how good he can be, and he goes against that compliment when he falls in love with the three-point shot.
There is no set solution to having three very different guards on the roster that all have considerable experience late in games, but the lack of experience in pressure situations this season my cost Syracuse in March. The best way for SU to avoid a tourney disappointment is to continue to avoid late-game situations where every possession is put under a microscope – and this team has the talent to do it.