Up Close with the Orange

Sunday afternoon was my first chance to see the '05-06 Syracuse Orange(men) in person. Through the generosity of a follow fanatical Orange fan, I was fortunate enough to have once-in-a-lifetime seats. Watching the games on my TV in Virginia is one thing, but seeing the team up close and personal is something else entirely.

First off, let me say that I was very impressed with SU's opponent, the Davidson Wildcats. Head coach Bob McKillop has a sharp, disciplined team that should be able to plow through the Southern Conference. If the team can avoid injury, they will be prohibitive favorites to win their conference tourney and advance to the NCAAs, where they would likely earn a 13-15 seed. For the first half of the game, they were very patient and ran their offensive sets with precision and poise. They looked to push the ball up the court at every opportunity, and they didn't back down against a bigger and more athletic Orange squad.

The formula worked very well for 25 minutes or so, as the Wildcats played the Orange to a tie. Center Ian Johnson scored repeatedly on the baseline and even stepped out to hit two trifectas, but eventually SU's size and superior physical abilities started to wear down Davidson. The Wildcats uncharacteristically turned the ball over 18 times (they average only 9 TOs per game) and SU capitalized with 90-80 victory. Everyone who follows the Orange knows that McNamara led the way with 38 points and that Demetris Nichols added a career high 26, but I want to take this time to talk about some of the general impressions that I left with after the game.

Size and speed: It is hard to appreciate the size and speed of the game if you are watching on TV. As a student at SU, I was usually at the front of the line for "first-come-first-served" student seats and I would sit in the front row behind the basket, generally speaking about 30 feet from the court. Even at that distance its hard to get a feel for how physical the game is. But up close you can really feel how intense the game is. These kids go at it with gusto. You hear some vicious SMACKS! - the kind that I previously would have thought of as a casual slap on the hand actually end up leaving deep purple welts. Guys body up, push and shove, bump and hand check, and knock each other off balance left and right. The question is not "was that player fouled?" --- the question is "was he fouled hard enough to warrant a whistle?" And in the midst of this mayhem, there is the still the game of basketball, only its being played at a different level of speed and intensity that few of us are ever likely to experience. Decisions have to be made in the spur of the moment, and they have to be sharp, or its turnover city.

The verbal aspect of the game: In my opinion, this is one facet of the game that is often overlooked. It's no coincidence that some of the best players in hoops history were also known for their ability to communicate to teammates on the court (see: Johnson, Magic). In general, this version of SU hoopsters isn't the most vocal team. Mookie barely muttered a single word in 39 minutes on the court. Gerry, for all his gamesmanship, doesn't talk all that much either. The two players who did stand out, however, were Demetris Nichols and Eric Devendorf. Nichols seems to have taken over Craig Forth's role of spearheading the defense. He was constantly barking out assignments and giving pointers on positioning to his teammates. He also tended to let whoops of excitement after making good defensive plays. Oftentimes Nichols would yell out "Box out" when a shot went up. Devendorf was also very talkative on the defensive end, calling out switches and in general making a verbal nuisance of himself when on defense - yelling when shots went up, howling when passes were thrown near him.

Now on to the players:

Gerry McNamara - I don't know if I'll ever say another negative thing about this kid, even if he goes "oh-fer" the rest of the season. I know he dropped in 8 threes and scored 38 points, but that wasn't even what impressed me most. The kid plays so damn hard, its impossible not to like him. He never gives up on a play, he's all over the court, and simply put - he is the heart and soul of this team. On three separate occasions he ran down a Davidson player (usually Mookie's guy) who had an apparent breakaway. He moved his feet and hustled on D every possession, especially when the Orange was playing man-to-man defense. One of the most impressive plays in the game was when he snaked along the baseline and block one of 6-9 Ian Johnson's shots from behind.

Gerry's court vision has really improved and his stat line should have been more like 8 assists and 3 turnovers instead of 5 and 6 because I counted 3 times that he delivered the ball to the SU interior players that should have been dunks, but instead ended up going off their hands and out of bound. And for all those who say he's not a good athlete - I beg to differ. He gets off the ground so quick with his jumpshot that it should be illegal. Excellent elevation too. His release is lightning quick and he has great hand-eye coordination. He may not beat the nation's fastest guards in an end-to-end sprint, or out-jump the pogo-sticks out there, but he has other top notch physical talents.

Eric Devendorf - This kid still seems to be feeling out the college game. He shows some very nice glimpses, but also tends to disappear for extended periods of time. What I will say is that when SU started to make it's run in the second half, he and Gerry showed some great on-court chemistry. They looked like they had played together forever during a stretch when Devo poured in 9 points and Gerry nailed a pair of his kick-outs passes for three pointers. He has a great first step and a diverse array of shake-and-bake moves, but he also needs to be able to tell the difference between when to force the action and when not to. I expect big things from him in the future, but he's going to be relied on very heavily so this year will be a bit of baptism by fire. As with most of the Orangemen, he looked more comfortable playing man-to-man defense than he did playing zone. So much so, in fact, that there were two times that he came down the court and instinctively picked up his man, despite the fact that the team was in a zone. This is something that he will have to rectify, because if he forgets what defense he's in during a Big East game, he'll earn a quick trip to the bench.

Demetris Nichols - Wow. Just wow. His shot is so smooth. His release is much quicker than it was during his first two years at SU. When he has time and space to catch and gather himself, its cash-money. But again, it wasn't the offense that impressed me the most. For a 6-8 forward, he has such quick feet on defense. He hounded Southern Conference player of the year Brendan Winters into 1-12 shooting from beyond the arc. When he gets down into his crouch and puts on his "I'm gonna D you up" face, you're in serious trouble. One play that he made that really stuck out in my mind happened right in front of where I was sitting. Winters had the ball in the corner and Nichols cut off his baseline drive. Winters then passed the ball into the post to Ian Johnson. Nichols broke down and double teamed Johnson, then when Johnson went to pass the ball back out to Winters, Nichols closed back on his own man. Johnson rushed the pass and threw it out of bounds. Nichols' ability to cover ground with such speed was breath-taking, especially seeing it from 3 feet away.

That said, I do have some quibbles to address - first off I would like to see him diversify his offense game more. He needs to make himself more difficult to guard. He can be effective in transition and on the wing shooting the ball, but those things can be taken away by good defenders. Demetris really needs to improve his ball handling and work on creating his own shot. If he can get that aspect of the game together, we are looking at an All-Big East type of player. Secondly, he needs to tone down the celebrations. Two times during the game he started dancing after hitting a three and Winters beat him down the court during the festivities. It's great that he can use these to psyche himself up and boost his confidence, but he can't let it come at the expense of getting back on defense.

Terrance Roberts - The Tornado continues to baffle Orange fans with his inconsistency. Sunday's game against Davidson was no different - for every good play he made, he came back and negates it with a poor play. One thing that is abundantly clear is that he's extremely quick for his size and that he plays hard almost every possession. His biggest problem is slowing himself down. Everything he does is rushed. He has decent hands, but he needs to gather the ball before he breaks to make his move. Most of his turnovers come when he's already trying to drive to the basket before he's even caught the ball. He also needs to cut down on the stupid fouls - his 4th foul early in the second half came 30 feet from the basket when he tried an ill-advised impromptu double team on Gerry McNamara's man. His decision-making on defense is questionable to say the least, but his rebounding is crucial for the team's success.

Darryl "Mookie" Watkins - Another incredible physical specimen. He is so mobile for a 6-11 kid and he moves so effortlessly that when he does something well, it looks spectacular. He had a tremendous one-handed dunk on Davidson's center and swatted 5 shots in the game, all of which looked great. But, the Mookster is his own worst enemy at times. On offense he has no clear plan of attack. He's unselfish to a fault (when do you ever hear that about big men?). He could be a great interior passer but he still has no chemistry with Roberts. Their collective spacing on offense is terrible and they ended up nearly colliding many times. And when Mookie tries to deliver a touch pass to Roberts from 2 feet away... well, that's a guaranteed turnover. Who can catch that kind of pass from point blank range other than say Carmelo Anthony? His foul shooting - ugh - hard to make shots when your elbow flies all over the place. On the plus side, he did command a double team several times and made the proper kick out passes to GMac and Nichols to the tune of 4 assists. Not too shabby.

The bigger problem was on the defensive end, where he still doesn't have a great feel for the game. He tries to block everything, but can't differentiate between when he should contest and when he shouldn't. He tends to give the opposing offensive player too much space - there was one play where he let Johnson catch the ball 8 feet from the basket. Mookie was about 4 or 5 feet from him and Johnson simply shot (and made) an ugly flatfooted push shot before Mookie could close out the space for the block. He also let Johnson go up and under against him twice, both times after falling for an initial pump fake. He can be a very good rebounder when he is in the middle of things, but he needs constant reminders of where to be on the court. Nichols in particular offered up a virtual soundtrack of tips for Mookie. One thing that really stood out was just before Gerry shot a free throw - Nichols yelled out "Mook, Sprint back!" This comment came on the heels of three times when Johnson flatout beat him down the court.

The Bench: Not much to say here. Louie got in for a quick cameo; long enough for my wife to say "I like his sneakers", but not long enough for me to see how he looked. Josh Wright had a few nice moments, but sometimes he gets out of control with the dribble. It's almost like his legs are too fast for the rest of his body. He is cat-quick, but had a harder time penetrating against the Davidson perimeter people than Gerry did. Josh did not set up his change of direction very well to help himself get into the lane. He's clearly much stronger than last year and that should help come Big East time. He and Gerry teamed up on a beautiful three-pointer in transition, where Josh dropped off a Pace-like pass to the trailing GMac.

The biggest story of the game in terms of bench play was Matt Gorman. The Pride of Watertown got a lot of PT on Sunday thanks to Roberts' foul trouble. Although he failed to register in the scoring column, he played very hard and did a very good job positioning himself for 7 all-important rebounds. On a night when the Orange got outboarded 42-37 by a smaller squad, those 7 boards were critical to the SU win. Matt seemed to do a good job of bodying up on defense when the Orange went man-to-man, but he is a step slow on the wing when they are in the zone. He really played an instrumental role during SU's second-half run because his screens on the baseline are about 10 times more effective than Terrance's or Mookie's. Gerry got so much more space coming off those curls, and the few times that he didn't, Matt rolled to an open spot where Gerry could deliver a pass for an open look. I liked that Matt didn't hesitate to shoot those shots, but it would have been nice if he hit one of them. Still, I think he did enough good things to warrant another look this week when SU entertains the Illinois-Chicago Flames.

Final Remarks: This team has a lot of perimeter firepower. The potential is there for a dynamic backcourt in McNamara, Devendorf, and Wright. Nichols still needs to prove he can do it night in, night out against the Big East's best, but the early returns have been excellent. The biggest question mark remains the interior play. Roberts has been pretty solid in the rebounding department, but he's about 3 to 5 points below where the staff expected him to be in terms of scoring. This team doesn't need huge scoring numbers from its extremely athletic big men, but it does need them to at least pose a threat. And it needs them to play smarter in terms of positioning and avoiding fouls. The Orange are a work in progress, but Sunday's game represented a small step in the right direction as they beat a potential low-seed NCAA tourney team. The 'Cuse now have 4 more games to get up to full speed before the eagerly anticipated Big East opener against long-time rival South Florida. (yes, sarcasm alert in full effect)

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