The result was the same, only this time the loss was at home, against a mid-major team, rather than on a neutral court against a high-major team. These are tough times to be an Orange fan, for sure.
Simply put, this is new territory for Syracuse. The last time that SU lost to 2 mid-major non-conference foes at home before January 1st, is, well, so long ago that I don't remember. There have been a smattering of single losses that fall into this category - Bucknell last season, Charlotte in 2003, Ohio in 1998, Eastern Michigan in 1996 - but to lose two, well, that's never before happened during the Jim Boeheim era. NEVER. EVER.
The storyline in these losses seems to be getting more and more predictable. Inability to take care of the ball and run a halfcourt offense has been the main issue in the trio of defeats. Ineffectual rebounding has been another. In tonight's game, Drexel took control midway through the second half when the SU offense sputtered under a barage of turnovers and missed layups.
SU entered the second half with a 43-36 lead, but seemed completely unfocused after emerging from the lockerroom. Drexel ripped off a 9-4 run over the first 4 minutes of the half, but it appeared that the Orange was about to regain the momentum when Demetris Nichols made a great block of a Bashir Mason fastbreak shot attempt.
Nichols recovered the ball (after stepping in from out of bounds) and the Orange eventually scored on a putback basket from Paul Harris. Josh Wright then scored on a coast to coast drive thirty seconds later, and the SU lead was back up to 8. It was at this point that everything fell apart.
With Terrance Roberts on the bench with an injured knee and Mookie Watkins joining him for a quick breather, the SU zone imploded. Much of this could be traced to the lineup of Gorman, Devendorf, Harris, Nichols, and Wright. It is doubtful that this particular quintet has seen much, if any action as a coherent unit this year.
It certainly showed on the court as Drexel went on a 12-2 run to take a 57-55 lead. The Dragons began to work the zone with patient and precise ball movement that resulted in four wide open trifectas, three of which found the bottom of the net. The one triple attempt that did miss was eventually turned into a putback basket by Chaz Crawford.
Drexel eventually extended its lead to 64-57 on a layup by Frank Elegar, who finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds. This basket marked the end of a 24-8 Drexel run, where the opponents dominated in nearly every fashion. They were particularly effective on the defensive end where they forced Josh Wright, Paul Harris, and Eric Devendorf into numerous turnovers.
From the 17:46 mark to the 9:48 mark, Drexel scored on 13 of 15 possessions. Proponents of the zone will point out that the Dragons hit only 8 of 24 three point attempts, but in point of fact they missed several of those shots during their remarkably efficient scoring run. Chaz Crawford and Frank Elegar nabbed nearly every missed triple to help extend possessions and burn clock before eventually scoring. All of the damage came against the zone.
Eventually Boeheim switched out of the zone into man to man defense, but it was too little, too late. Demetris Nichols put forth a valiant effort to bring SU back into the game, scoring 10 points in a two minute stretch, but he got little help from his teammates.
Nichols finished with a career high 31 points and added 9 rebounds, 1 ast, 4 blocks, and 2 steals. His play over the last four games has been nothing short of phenomenal and it is a shame to see his efforts wasted.
In the game's closing minutes, Syracuse held Drexel to 4 points in 7 possessions when playing straight-up man to man defense. However, the Dragons were able to score enough points against the press and zone (on inbounds plays) to salt away the win.
Besides the stellar play of Nichols, there were few positives for SU. The Orange did control the boards, posting a +8 margin (44-36), and the team also connected on 21 of 24 free throws for 87.5%. That brings their two game total to 46 of 54. Excellent indeed. (On the flip side, it is important to note that if Drexel had shot free throws better, they would have easily posted a ten point victory).
SR C Darryl Watkins posted an impressive statline of 14 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 blocks, but the opposing big men combined for 36 points and 17 boards. Watkins was outstanding grabbing missed shots, but otherwise his defense was poor as he repeatedly allowed Elegar and Crawford to get position on him around the basket. Still, his increased offensive output is a welcomed sight.
Joining Nichols and Watkins in double figures was PG Josh Wright, who chipped in 11 points and 3 assists. Wright also had four costly turnovers and had little success directing the halfcourt offense, other than just giving the ball to Nichols.
Wright needs to do a better job of orchestrating court spacing for his teammates. In the first half, this was painfully obvious as the Orange threw away two passes when Paul Harris was trying to post up. In both instances, a Drexel helpside defender was able to disrupt the pass because a nearby SU player did not clear far enough out to allow for an uninhibited passing lane.
It is incumbent on the point guard to make sure that his teammates have the ball in positions to make solid passes or take open shots. Tonight, Wright was not able to accomplish either of these goals.
Getting back to Paul Harris, it was another up and down game for the frosh. He scored 7 points and added 7 boards, but almost all of his damage came late in the game.
Harris continues to appear lost at times, particularly in the first halves. Dating back to the Wichita State game, he has had first half scoring totals of 2, 0, 2, 2, and 0. His second half totals during the same stretch are 12, 11, 0, 15, and 7. When 43 of your 49 points come in the second half, that shows that you're not comfortable early in the game.
An intriguing observation is that Harris seems to play much better late in the games when the team is down. His sense of offensive spacing in the halfcourt is quite poor right now, but in a helter-skelter type of open court game he is quite effective. It is also no coincidence that much of his late game scoring has come when the team is playing man to man defense and forcing turnovers to uptempo the game.
The biggest, most obvious problem that the team is having now is that Harris and Devendorf, the team's top scoring options after Nichols, have struggled mightily since late November. Devendorf seems completely lost coming off the bench, and looks like he has lost a step as well. His lack of body control on drives into the paint is quite worrisome, considering that it used to be one of his greatest strengths.
The bottomline is that this team is lacking a defining identity. If they continue to rely on Nichols scoring 30 a game, they are in big trouble because eventually the long jumpers get a bit harder against better competition. Someone other than Nichols needs to step up and put his mark on the team. At this point, Watkins looks to be the team's best option as a second scorer. And that's a scary thought...