It was a tale of two weekends. During the Big East Tournament, the Orange played with a fire, cohesive team identity, and purpose that had been absent for most of the season. With the team finally settling into mutually complimentary roles and adopting an "us-against-the-world" intensity, SU finally lived up to it's potential in knocking off a competitive Cincinnati squad, dispatching of the #1 ranked UConn Huskies, shell-shocking the inexperienced #23 ranked Georgetown Hoyas, and finally putting away the #18 ranked Pitt Panthers. With Gerry McNamara providing highlight reel late-game heroics, Syracuse University captured both the attention and the imagination of the college basketball world in winning the Big East Tournament championship. The Orange not only played their way into the NCAA Tournament, but had done so in grand style, enticing Syracuse fans to eagerly look forward to see what the team could do for an encore.
The following weekend represented a microcosm of the inconsistency that plagued the Orange all season long. Although the injury to McNamara was obviously more severe and problematic than anyone had been led to believe, it was a familiar set of bugaboos that were equally responsible for the loss: uninspired defense, poor free throw shooting, lack of balanced scoring, and wildly inconsistent play from junior frontcourt starters Demetris Nichols and Terrance Roberts. Losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year was a bitter pill to swallow after experiencing the euphoria of winning a second consecutive Big East Tournament championship.
In many ways, last season was as unfulfilling as it was maddeningly frustrating for Syracuse University fans. The purpose of this article is to look back at the 2005-2006 season, and to evaluate where the Orange got off track.
Juniors, Say "Ow"
The Syracuse University Orange entered the 2005-2006 with perhaps the most uncertainty of any team in the Big East. Although McNamara was returning for his senior season, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was in the unenviable position of having to replace three senior starters, all of whom had been integral during the 2003 National Championship season. In addition to the lost experience and leadership, Boeheim also had to replace the consistent productivity of all-American forward Hakim Warrick, who had been the best low post player in college basketball over the course of the previous two seasons.
To compensate, Boeheim hoped that a quintet of juniors would be able to step up and fill the talent, leadership, and experience void left by the departed 2005 seniors. On paper, it seemed like a safe bet, as three members of the junior class [Louie McCroskey, Demetris Nichols, and Terrance Roberts] had accumulated starting experience earlier in their respective playing careers.
The problem was, each of these players had been little more than spot-starters, none of whom had been counted upon to produce. The other two members of the junior class [Darryl Watkins and redshirt Matt Gorman] were largely inexperienced players with very little playing time under their belts.
From both standpoints, Boeheim had an atypical group of upperclassmen at his disposal. Most players entering their junior seasons having had the opportunity to hone their games, gain both playing experience and confidence, and naturally progressing into more important team roles by their junior years. This year's group had mostly ridden the pine behind the more experienced and dependable upperclassmen, and hence, did not prove to be ready to ascend into the more prominent roles that were required. Furthermore, each member of the group entered the season with a significant question mark about their game and skill set:
In 2004-2005, Louie McCroskey demonstrated poor judgment and worse outside shooting. In short, all of his face the basket perimeter skills [important traits for an ostensible shooting guard] were highly suspect.
Demetris Nichols had a reputation as a sweet shooter and defensive stopper, but after an injury cost him his starting role in 2004-2005, he lost all semblance of confidence. Nobody knew which Nichols would show up in 2005-2006. Would it be the high scoring, athletic shooter, or the passive offensive liability?
Terrance Roberts had an NBA physique and athleticism. He was also coming off of a summer where he played international basketball for Team USA — an experience which theoretically should have accelerated his developmental curve. However, Roberts entered the season still lacking any semblance of a consistent low post game. Since he was the player being counted upon to fill the big shoes of the departed Warrick, Roberts had the most question marks to answer.
Neither Watkins nor Gorman had played any semblance of consistent minutes, and hence, were both major question marks entering this past season.
By the end of the season, it was clear that the much-ballyhooed junior class was earning mixed reviews. Demetris Nichols was easily the team MVP for the first third of the season, although his shooting, scoring, and overall play dropped off precipitously as the season wore on [he finished the year averaging 13.3 points and 5.8 rebounds on 42.7% shooting / 36.3% from three point range]. Unable to put the ball on the floor or create his own offense, he too often got caught standing around watching his teammates play one-on-one.
Roberts averaged 10.7 points and 7.6 rebounds, while shooting 55.8% from the field. Solid numbers, right? Not so when you consider that for the first two-thirds of the season, Roberts was averaging more than 12 points per game. Offensive limitations, coupled with waning confidence, led to wild inconsistency from the excitable Roberts. For every solid performance [Rutgers, West Virginia], he would have a game where he was completely invisible. His free-throw shooting made Derek Brower look like Rick Barry. By the end of the season, Boeheim's impatience with Roberts grew to the point where he often drew quick hooks in favor of the less talented Gorman, who at least provided more offensive consistency.
McCroskey completely imploded during his junior season. After losing his starting spot to blue chip freshman Eric Devendorf early in the year, McCroskey lashed out publicly in the local press. He later contemplated quitting and missed practice time before capitulating and returning to the team. For a time, McCroskey seemed to embrace his role as a sixth-man, and he turned in several solid [albeit unspectacular] outings. Unfortunately, his early season behavior was a harbinger of bad things to come, as McCroskey had an outburst during halftime of a game where he allegedly had to be restrained from attacking Boeheim. McCroskey's volatility drew him a brief suspension, but he eventually returned to the team, although in a reduced playing capacity. Unfortunately, the team — which lacked strong player leadership — proved unable to overcome the multitude of distractions emanating from it's most temperamental player, to the detriment of team chemistry. At press time, McCroskey is rumored to be considering transferring — a move that would likely work out best for all parties concerned.
Watkins had barely played in his first two seasons on the hill. Despite also having an NBA physique, he arrived at SU with virtually no idea how to best use his size and strength. The Syracuse coaching staff wanted him to redshirt, but Watkins declined. The end result was a wasted freshman campaign and a squandered year's worth of eligibility. Watkins began playing impressive ball early in his sophomore season, but a broken hand derailed his progress and cost him much-needed playing time. Watkins entered his junior year as a completely unproven commodity.
Perhaps more than any other junior, Watkins struggled during the 2005-2006 campaign. Despite his physical prowess, he often proved to be a defensive liability, playing the game in a "polite" fashion that belied his imposing physical stature. He endured an abysmal stretch of games where he couldn't even DUNK the ball successfully. But over the course of the last ten games, a light seemed to switch on for Watkins. His play during that stretch was more instinctual and less mechanical. He began to show nice timing on the offensive end, and stopped rushing shots. He became a defensive terror, capable of banging in the paint with other Big East behemoths, then beating them down the floor on fast breaks. He terrorized the lane with decisive blocked shots, and suddenly emerged as a dominant rebounder on the defensive end. For the season, Watkins ended up averaging 7.1 points and 7.3 rebounds. He also averaged 2.8 blocked shots per game, and displayed tremendous potential and court vision as a high-post passer. Perhaps more than anyone on the team, Watkins improved during the course of the season. Unlike most of his classmates, he seems to be sitting on a vast amount of potential, and can / should emerge as one of the most pleasant surprises of next season.
With Roberts and Watkins dominating pre-season playing time, and with freshman Arinze Onuaku playing so well in a reserve capacity, Matt Gorman appeared to be caught in a familiar rut of being unable to escape the gravitational pull of the bench. But as Roberts play declined, Gorman's began to ascend. While not the athlete that Roberts is, Gorman showed that he can be a contributor at this level. He had several solid scoring outings — invariably during games where Roberts wasn't providing any low-post offense—and also showed a willingness to hustle and scrap. He should be able to build on this experience to emerge as an even more consistent threat for next year's team.
Just like last year, this year's junior class will enter next season with a number of question marks. Can Demetris Nichols show more offensive consistency, and will he improve his ball handling to the point where he can create his own offense? Can he thrive as the primary perimeter scorer now that McNamara will no longer garner the majority of the opposition's defensive attention? Will Roberts add a go-to move to his arsenal of dunks, or will he return as the same offensively limited player who is unable to score from anywhere other than point blank range? Can Watkins build upon the experience he gained this year, harness his physical attributes, and take the next step forward in his developmental curve? How well or poorly these questions get answered will largely determine just how successful the Orange are next season.
The Ghost of Edelin
After three tumultuous years of affiliation with the Syracuse University Men's Basketball program, Billy Edelin was forced to take his nomadic game and enigmatic persona elsewhere. So how then, do you ask, did Edelin impact this past year's team?
Simply put, Edelin's presence the previous year had a detrimental effect on the development of the only true point guard on this year's team, sophomore Josh Wright. During Wright's freshman campaign, the waterbug quick player from Utica saw his playing time interrupted at mid-season with the return of Edelin to the lineup. Although Edelin was scarcely a fraction of the player he'd been during his freshman season, Boeheim continued to give him playing time [partially, but not entirely in lieu of Wright] in hopes that Edelin would regain his form. Although he had moments where he flashed the cerebral gamesmanship that he displayed during the second half of 2003 [such as the road victory over Villanova, where the Orange obliterated the highly ranked Wildcats], in the majority of games his play was subpar. In the end, Edelin's proclivity to get into trouble once again manifested, and his personal problems got in the way of him completing the season. Edelin was first suspended, then relegated to the bench for the tail end of the 2004-2005 campaign.
But by then, Wright's season had already been undermined. Having lost time to the more experienced Edelin, there was no way that Wright was prepared to play during the heart of the Big East schedule, or in the Big East tournament. So he continued to languish on the bench while Boeheim played a flawed backcourt consisting of McNamara, graduated Josh Pace, and McCroskey.
Again, foremost atop the Orange's list of team needs was a pass-first point guard who could alleviate some of the ball handling / playmaking responsibilities from McNamara. Wright got off to a slow, albeit solid start, but disaster struck when he suffered a fluke toe injury and missed four consecutive games. The problem was, these four games were in the heart of the preseason… games that Wright would have in theory garnered significant playing time, and exponentially increased both his experience level and his confidence. Even when he returned to the lineup, it took several weeks for Wright to round back into form and regain his quickness and lateral mobility. The result was yet another setback on Wright's developmental curve.
Amidst rumors surrounding Devendorf's eligibility next season, Wright figures to be an important cog in the Orange machine. As things currently stand, Wright is one of only four scholarship backcourt players on next year's roster. He will also be the team's only legitimate point guard. The problem is, due to both bad circumstances and injury, Wright is still virtually an unknown commodity. It remains to be seen whether he can handle the responsibilities of quarterbacking a team full-time. Does he have a strong enough handle? Can he adequately defend top-level backcourt talent? The opportunity will be there for Wright to seize control at the team's main position of need, but his ability to rise to the occasion is not guarantee.
With the departure of the perimeter-challenged Pace and the arrival of highly touted shooting guard Devendorf, the play of the backcourt was supposed to be a team strength for the first time in several seasons. True to form, Devendorf's early season play quickly earned him a role in the starting lineup, and he impressed with his deep shooting range—a complimentary threat to McNamara's perimeter prowess that had been absent the previous two seasons. For a time, McNamara was leading the conference in assists, and his playmaking moxie appeared to be peaking towards a career best — a happenstance that was partially attributable to the experience he gained over the previous summer as a member of Team USA.
Unfortunately, the early success of the backcourt was short-lived. As the team began to accumulate losses, and as the various team inadequacies began to get exposed with greater regularity, McNamara resorted to familiar tendencies. With his teammates unable or unwilling to generate offense, GMac often took it upon himself to force the issue, often to the detriment of team offensive chemistry. Although McNamara was always capable of dangerous streak shooting that could bury an opponent, he was also prone to shooting his team out of games when his shot wasn't dropping. His teammates' frequent inability to score often left McNamara in a position where he tried to create his own shots. For a player who wasn't particularly quick nor athletic, and for one who lacked the strongest handle, this was a tall order — even for a player of GMac's moxie and confidence level.
The problem was further exacerbated by the unequivocal green light that Boeheim gave McNamara. While #3 had earned the right to shoot whenever and wherever he wanted, it was also incumbent upon the coaching staff to rein him in at times — a strategic move that would have benefited the team when McNamara was not shooting well. Boeheim's willingness to play GMac for 38+ minutes per game only exacerbated the problem late in games.
Another backcourt issue was that both staring backcourt players focused primarily on creating their own offense. Despite Devendorf's prowess in getting into the lane, he rarely created easy scoring opportunities for his teammates. This latter tendency began to change a bit later in the season, when the Orange got more comfortable having Devendorf initiate the team's offense in half-court sets. Even so, more improvement will be needed next year in order to avoid the same pitfall. Too often this past season, the team would stand around watching McNamara and / or Devendorf pound the ball while searching for an opportunity to let fly.
A final backcourt deficiency was that McNamara and Devendorf comprised the smallest starting backcourt in recent memory for Coach Boeheim. Ideally, Boeheim's patented zone philosophy prefers to utilize rangy, long defenders who can cover a lot of ground at the top of the zone, and who can use size to take away clean looks. This year's miniscule backcourt was devoid of such length. The diminutive Wright certainly will not rectify this situation next year, but the presence of bigger wing defenders like Andy Rautins, incoming freshman Paul Harris, and Nichols should make the zone a more formidable defensive match up next year.
To Lead or Not To Lead
McNamara was in a tough position last year. As the lone senior / sole returning starter of significance on a predominantly inexperienced roster, GMac and GMac alone was in a position to fill the leadership void left by graduated team captains Warrick, Pace, and Craig Forth. The other players correctly deferred to him, both on and off the court. The main issue was: when the team faced adversity, McNamara did not have the personal style necessary to rally the troops when it was necessary.
If you want a captain who leads by example, exudes quiet confidence, and lets his playing do the talking — then the taciturn GMac is your guy. But there were plenty of times when this team needed a leader who would be demonstrative, get in the other players' faces, and even be a hard ass when the situation demanded—none of which was a comfortable fit for McNamara's style. If ever there was a year when a second captain was needed — one who perhaps brought a different set of personality characteristics than McNamara to the table — this was the year.
Further exacerbating the problem was the fact that none of the juniors proved capable of stepping up and helping to fill the leadership void. Nichols quickly lost confidence when he feel into a mid-season slump. Roberts was too hyper. McCroskey spent much of the season preoccupied with individual considerations over team goals. And Watkins seemed to be too introverted to be a demonstrative leader.
Despite these shortcomings, when things seemed bleakest, the team always could fall back on the possibility of having GMac single handedly bail them out of tough situations with clutch shooting. That won't be the case next year, which means that every one of the juniors — in their own way — needs to step up and embrace a leadership role. The arrival of Paul Harris should also infuse this roster with a competitive dynamic that was far too often lacking last season.
Next Season's Outlook
The Gerry McNamara era came to an unsatisfying end with the first round NCAA tournament loss to Texas A&M. It was an unfitting conclusion for a player who was an integral part of the 2003 National Championship run, and one who left his heart and soul out on the floor every game.
It seems unfathomable to suggest that a team could lose a player of Gerry McNamara's caliber and somehow improve, but that is a distinct possibility for next year's edition of the Orange. Next year's group returns an enviable collection of size and physical talent, and much more experience than the 2005-2006 team had. Add star recruit Harris into the equation and it's not hard to envision the squad as a tougher, better defending, and more intensely competitive group than this year's team was. It's possible that this year's juniors—all of whom underachieved somewhat, will collectively improve to the point where they put the teams on their back and right the ship.
In that regard, I compare this year's team to the 1998-1999 Syracuse team — one that featured solid juniors — none of whom were star-caliber — in Jason Hart, Ryan Blackwell, and Etan Thomas. Despite the team's overall talent, athleticism, and the fact that the starting lineup included three eventual NBA players, the team dramatically underachieved for most of the regular season, and was the first team ousted in the 1999 NCAA tournament.
The following seasons, this trio collectively elevated their level of play. Hart, Blackwell, and Thomas used the disappointing finish to the 1999 season as motivation in the off season to work hard and improve. In the 1999-2000 season, it was a far more poised senior triumvirate that led the team to a 19-0 start, en route to a deep run in both the Big East Conference and NCAA post-season tournaments.
In order for this historical precedent to repeat next season, the following ten things need to fall into place:
- Nichols needs to emerge as the team's go to scorer. He also needs to improve his ability to put the ball on the floor, thereby enhancing his versatility and making him a more dangerous face-the-basket threat. He has the tools to be an 18+ point per game scorer—does he have the internal fortitude to make it happen?
- Roberts needs to develop a bread-and-butter low post move—one that he can go to at any time and convert with a reasonable percentage of success. Right now, his entire offensive repertoire consists of dunks and getting out in transition. Having even just ONE move would make him a much more effective low post weapon. Also, Roberts needs to improve his free throw shooting to the point where he is converting a MINIMUM of two-thirds of his attempts from the line. His free throw shooting was an absurd liability in 2005-2006.
- Watkins needs to build upon his late season success, and take a massive step forward in terms of consistency. The coaching staff needs to find a way to get this kid to Pete Newell's off-season big man camp. It also wouldn't hurt for the big guy to develop more of a mean streak.
- Wright needs to finally live up to the recruiting hype of being a top 35 player, and prove that he can provide the cerebral, steady lead guard play that next year's team so desperately will need. He also needs to show a much better handle against defensive pressure, and make better decisions with the ball once he gets into the lane. He doesn't necessarily have to be Sherman Douglas, but the team certainly can't afford for him to be Mike Edwards [i.e., a small guard who can't defend, has a weak handle, is a poor playmaker, and whose only value comes as a streak three-point shooter].
- Devendorf needs to do a better job of creating shooting opportunities for his teammates off of the dribble. A player who gets into the lane on penetrating forays to the hoop as often as 8-Mile, does needs to amass higher assist totals. He also needs to step up and be more of a vocal on-court leader in lieu of showboating. By all accounts, Devendorf had a fantastic debut season, but he needs to be even more versatile and effective next year.
- Paul Harris needs to live up to the billing. He doesn't need to come in and be a dominant scorer, a la Carmelo Anthony. But the coaching staff does need for Harris's defensive intensity and relentless effort on the glass rub off on his teammates. If that occurs, Harris could prove to be the most valuable contributor for the Orange without ever scoring a point. When it comes to competitive fire, one needs to look no further than this video of Harris at the 2005 PrimeTime Shootout. While the end result of the play was a missed dunk, the combination of defense, shot blocking, rebounding, ballhandlilng, and open court speed all exhibited in a SINGLE play is absolutely staggering.
- Onuaku needs to take his physical conditioning to the next level, just as his similarly built predecessors Otis Hill and Jeremy McNeil did. One could make a compelling argument that Onuaku was the best FRESHMAN center that Syracuse has had in quite some time. Arinze needs to work hard to improve in all aspects of the game, so that the same claim can be made during his upperclassman seasons. The first step on that path will be to push himself to the pinnacle of physical conditioning and improve his stamina, quickness, and lateral mobility.
- Gorman needs to build on the playing time that he got over the course of the second half of last season, and develop into a more consistent scorer, shooter, and overall contributor next season. With complimentary depth like Onuaku and Gorman behind the senior starters, the Syracuse frontcourt could boast one of the best collection of big men in all of college basketball next season.
- Rautins needs to work hard in the off-season to improve his strength, and return next winter prepared to seize the backup backcourt minutes vacated by the departing McCroskey. With his shooting, feel for the game, and nose for the ball, Rautins could and should prove to be a significant upgrade. In fact, given the team's limited backcourt options, Andy's ability to step into a more prominent reserve role [or not] will either solidify the backcourt, or further exacerbate what might otherwise prove to be a glaring team weakness.
- There are years when Coach Boeheim takes a group of unheralded players and molds them into an exciting, competitive group. In fact, some of his best coaching performances have occurred during seasons when expectations have been lowest. It is not too far of a stretch to suggest that last year was far from Boeheim's best coaching performance. For far too long, the team seemed listless, easy to defend, and easily exploited on defense. The team also endured a mid-to-late season slump that almost derailed the team's NCAA aspirations… one that saw the Orange lose by 40 points to an average DePaul team in a critical, must-win situation.
Boeheim need to mix things up a bit, and play to the strengths of his players… especially on defense. It remains to be seen how much of an effect Harris will have — but with athletes like Harris, Nichols, Roberts, and Watkins, it seems like a waste to not employ a more aggressive defensive style that imposes tempo on the opposing team for a change.
The 2006-2007 season promises to be an exciting one for Syracuse University fans. Next year's team has a number of significant question marks, and it remains to be seen whether or not the current group of players has what it takes to make the Orange more competitive. The answer to most — if not all — of these questions will remain largely unknown until the beginning of pre-season practice next fall.
October 15 th can not get here soon enough!
Let's Go Orange!!!