Embarrassed! Orange Fall to Minutemen 107-100

The Syracuse Orange fell to 4-2 on the season after a disheartening and dispirited 107-100 loss to the UMass minutemen. Eric Devendorf led Syracuse with 23 points but was charged with a late game intentional foul that all but destroyed any chance of an SU comeback. UMass was led by senior swingman Gary Forbes, whose deep three-pointer with under a minute to go proved to be the dagger.

You knew it was going to be a rough night right from the start. The Minutemen's first three possessions proved to be a foreshadowing of how the evening would play out. Luke Bonner and Etienne Brower combined to hit open three pointers against the hapless SU defense and UMass got out to a quick 9-2 lead. Syracuse responded with an impressive 13-0 run sparked by a switch out of the zone defense into a man to man and roared ahead 20-12. But just as quickly as they took the lead, UMass got back into it with 6 fastbreak points in under a minute's worth of game time which forced a Boeheim timeout.

The ability to give up large quantities of points in a short amount of time is becoming a common theme for this SU squad. The transition defense has been awful since the very first game, but tonight the Orange took it to a new level of ineptitude. The most frustrating part of the defensive effort was that fact that many of the UMass fastbreak baskets came after made baskets by Syracuse. Rather than hustle back into position in the zone, Syracuse players like Donte Greene seemed more interested in playing to the crowd with cheesy "Dynasty" symbols and grandiose chest thumping. Newsflash to Donte and the rest of the team - four wins in six games does not a dynasty make.

Back to the game at hand... Syracuse's offense was firing on all cylinders for most of the first half with four players scoring in double figures before the break. SU looked poised to blow the game open after pulling ahead by 9 with a minute left, but they took a page from the 2006-07 playbook and ended the first half on a decidedly "down" note. First Etienne Brower nailed a three pointer, then Flynn committed a turnover, giving the ball back to the Minutemen for the last shot of the half. A three pointer by Ricky Harris just 2 seconds before the halftime buzzer pulled UMass to within 3 at 51-48 and gave them the momentum going into the second stanza. Poor execution to close a half was something that I hoped had graduated with the class of 2007. Alas, I was wrong.

The poor close-out highlighted another weakness of this year's SU team, namely its inability to defend the three point shot. UMass entered the game as a team with a reputation of living and dying by the three, so the fact that they launched 31 shots from beyond the arc should have come as no surprise to anyone. The shocking thing is that the SU defense barely seemed to contest any of these shots and allowed 14 makes. On top of that they committed not one, not two, not three, but FOUR fouls on players shooting triples. This lack of execution on the defensive end is simply inexcusable.

Part of the problem with the SU zone is that it is not constructed with the type of players that usually makes Boeheim's zone so difficult to deal with. There is no imposing shotblocker in the middle, so the perimeter defenders cannot afford to play up on the opposition for fear of giving up dribble penetration. Also, only Donte Greene fits the prototypical Boeheim long and lanky forward motif... unfortunately he is almost entirely disinterested in even attempting to play defense, so his length hasn't gained the team much. Up front Devendorf has decent size but does not seem to be able to cut off dribble penetration and also seems to spend most of his time in a spectator's role, simply watching opposing guards shoot three pointers. On the wing on his side of the zone is Paul Harris, who is often caught trying to make up for Devendorf's repeated mistakes and ends up trying to guard someone up top while leaving a shooter open on the wing. On the other side, Flynn is repeatedly caught going behind screens and gives up too many open looks. He also hasn't been able to use his quickness to jump the passing lanes when he is screened out of the play. It all adds up to one dysfunctional zone.

There have been times when Flynn has been disruptive, such in the first half when he swiped the ball from Chris Lowe and fed Donte Greene with a beautiful 1/2 court bounce pass for an easy score. However, more often than not the zone has been very poor. The obvious alternative would be to play man to man defense, but that has been equally problematic.

Switching away from the negatives, Flynn's ability to drive and dish was on full display tonight, as he registered a career high 11 assists to go along with 20 points. It seems weird to look in the box score and see three Orange(men) tallied double-doubles in a losing effort. Arinze Onuaku was excellent with 20 points and 10 rebounds, and Paul Harris added 13 points and 11 rebounds.

Despite the gaudy numbers, both players made crucial mistakes down the stretch. Onuaku missed two free throws with 1:42 left that could have brought the Orange to within 1 point and Harris had a critical turnover at the 3:05 mark when he was stripped of the ball after attempting to shoot a pull-up jumper. Given the circumstances, it wouldn't have been a great decision even if he had gotten the shot off. Paul Harris scored only 1 second-half point and committed three turnovers during that stretch. He also fouled Ricky Harris on a corner three-pointer with under 3 minutes left, which allowed UMass to take a 96-95 lead.

Ricky Harris would finish with 25 points, 20 of which came in the second half. He was also involved in a series of weird plays at the game's end where he was intentionally fouled twice and also charged with a technical foul for taunting the Carrier Dome crowd. [It appeared to me that he said something to the effect of "I get my {expletive deleted} done" after hitting his free throws down the stretch. This seemed to be in response to his watching Onuaku and Harris miss important free throws down the stretch.

Despite all of the negatives, SU still had a commanding lead with 14 minutes to play. They pulled ahead 70-58 after Flynn fed Devendorf for an old-fashioned three point play. This proved to be a turning point in the game as the Minutemen were able to quickly whittle into the lead due to some very questionable shot selection from Harris, Devendorf, and Greene. All three players launched ill-advised three pointers early in the shot clock and UMass was able to corral the misses and convert them into fastbreak baskets.

For Greene, the miss seemed to suck the life out of his game. In a virtual re-enactment of the Ohio State game, he essentially disappeared for most of the second half. He finished with 20 points and 6 rebounds, but made little to no contributions when the game was on the line. There is no doubt that he is a fabulous offensive talent, but sometimes his shot selection proves to be fool's gold. He connected on a few questionable shots in the first half that came early in the shot clock, but these same shots failed to fall during the game's last 10 minutes.

It didn't take long for UMass to get back in the game, as they cut a 9 point deficit to 3 in roughly a minute between the 11:50 and 10:43 mark. Back to back turnovers by Jardine and Harris were made worse by half-hearted efforts at transition defense. Ricky Harris scored 4 points during this stretch after being held to only 5 in the first half. The two teams basically traded baskets until the final 4 minutes of the game, which saw UMass close out on an 18-7 run. Gary Forbes supplied the lethal blow with a 23 foot triple right in Devendorf's face at the 1:11 mark. Once again Boeheim called for his team to stay in the zone, which gave UMass the opportunity to run the shot clock down to 3 seconds before getting off the clinching shot.

The loss spoiled an otherwise excellent offensive performance by the Orange. They shot 56% from the field, collectively dished out 20 assists, and made 41% from three point range. Although the final turnover number was 15, they took relatively good care of the ball until the final 10 minutes. You have to wonder if fatigue played a role in the second half as Travis Ford employed liberal substitutions while Boeheim was content to give his bench a grand total of 15 minutes. In particular, Onuaku looked gassed when shooting those free throws (the second was an airball) and also had difficulty getting back on defense, while Flynn had two uncharacteristic turnovers late in the game.

Syracuse will now enter Saturday's game against Tulane with a 4-2 overall record. You can bet that the next two practices will be spent focusing on defense. While this year's SU team has the firepower to be potentially great, none of that will matter until they address some of the glaring deficiencies on the defensive end. Stay tuned for Saturday's game to see if they'll make any progress.

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