This injury is the latest setback for the snake-bitten Syracuse backcourt in 2007. The problems began last summer, when starting guard Andy Rautins also suffered a torn ACL while playing for Team Canada in the FIBA Americas Championship—an injury which is causing him to miss the entire 2007-2008 season.
Further exacerbating matters, disgruntled senior point guard Josh Wright quit the team prior to the ETSU game—his second such defection of the season. Wright's departure was undoubtedly due to lack of playing time [Wright was decisively beaten out of a starting position by freshman blue chip point guard Jonny Flynn in the preseason]. To date, Wright had only registered 19 total minutes in the four games he played in. He has been a no-show in six of Syracuse's ten games, including the game against ETSU on Saturday.
The unavailability of Rautins and Wright leave Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim with only two scholarship guards remaining on the roster—Flynn and fellow freshman Antonio "Scoop" Jardine. But with the most difficult portion of the schedule looming—including the entire Big East Conference schedule—how will Syracuse replace the productivity of the team's most experienced player?
This article explores different strategies that Boeheim could employ to compensate for the loss of Devendorf.
* * *
First, the bad news: there is no way for Syracuse to fully replace the prolific scoring, perimeter prowess, experience, and moxie of a player like Devendorf. Although slightly overshadowed by the flashiness of Flynn and freshman forward Donte Greene, through ten games of his junior year, Devendorf was quietly putting together his best season in Orange. Statistically, his numbers through the ESTU game were:
10 G, 34.2 MPG, 17.0 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 3.9 APG, 3.4 TO, 1.7 ST, 0.4 BS, .466 FG%, .743 FT%, .407 3PT%
What the numbers don't convey is how dangerous Devendorf was attacking the rim off of the bounce, how prolific of a three point threat he'd become, and how he was the only player on the team with the experience, floor vision, and ball handling aptitude to adequately back up Flynn at the point guard position. No single player on the Orange roster will be able to provide each of those dimensions, which will force Boeheim to use a combination of strategies to help offset Devendorf's loss.
Option 1: The Inside Scoop
The most obvious countermeasure that Boeheim could employ would be to insert freshman Antonio "Scoop" Jardine into the starting position vacated by the injured Devendorf. Like Devendorf, Jardine is a combination guard who can penetrate and has the floor vision / passing skills to deliver the ball to his teammates for scoring opportunities.
But at this stage of his developmental curve, Jardine has several limitations—the most glaring of which is outside shooting. Although he has shown the ability to consistently hit mid range jumpshots, Jardine demonstrates atrocious form with his outside shot. His quirky, corkscrew release limits his range to about 16 feet. Just as Paul Harris was ineffectual from three point range last season, the Orange will be in trouble if forced to rely upon Jardine as a shooter.
Jardine is also about the same size as Devendorf, which means that he might be somewhat of a defensively liability at the top of the zone when paired up with the diminutive Flynn. If Boeheim chooses to insert Jardine into the starting lineup, another drawback will be that there will be no other scholarship guards on the roster to spell the starters, should foul trouble, poor play, or—god forbid—injury force either of the starters to the bench.
Still, the player known to teammates and fans as "Scoop" arrived at Syracuse with an impressive resume, having played against top flight competition at the high school level in Philadelphia. Jardine has also excelled at every level of competition, including AAU play, at summer camps, and in international competition—meaning that he might be more prepared to play as a freshman than most recruits.
Another factor to consider: Jardine is the only member of the freshmen class who has not been given abundant time to show what he can do. Given the impressive play of the other Syracuse freshmen in conjunction with Jardine's experiential background, it is possible that with additional minutes, he might prove to be more than just a stop-gap solution.
Option 2: Harris to guard / Greene to small forward
If Boeheim chooses to continue having Jardine come off of the bench, another option would be to shift Harris into the backcourt. Harris has the versatility to handle the ball in the open court, and has natural passing instincts. He also offers a more imposing defensive presence at the top of the zone than Jardine.
However, there are several negative consequences that would result from moving Harris from his preferred small forward position to the backcourt, the most significant of which would be the reduction of his rebounding productivity. To date, Harris is averaging a team-leading 9.8 caroms per game, despite not having ideal size for the frontcourt. Moving him out to the perimeter would likely result in a precipitous decline in his opportunities to crash the boards.
Also, while Harris has improved both his midrange jumpshot and his ability to connect from three point range, his shooting skills are too unproven for him to be considered a reliable perimeter threat. Harris's success [or lack thereof] shooting the ball can largely be attributed to shot selection, and moving Harris to the wing on offense might result in diminishing returns in terms of his shooting effectiveness.
Shifting Harris to guard would also have a domino effect for the rest of the frontcourt, as Greene is the only other player with the skill set to man the small forward position. If Harris moves to guard and Greene slides to small forward, then either Rick Jackson or Kristof Ongenaet will be required to fill in at power forward. Of these two, Jackson has proven to be the more game ready, averaging 5.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, and connecting on 71.9% of his field goal attempts in a mere 12.8 minutes of play per game.
The main issue with starting Jackson lies in a lack of depth at the center position. Behind the depleted backcourt, depth at center is probably the team's biggest issue. Unfortunately, Jackson is the only other player on the roster with the ability to play in the pivot, other than starter Arinze Onuaku. Moving Jackson into the starting lineup would mean that there is no viable reserve when foul trouble or fatigue forces Onuaku to the bench—considerations that will be increasingly more salient as Syracuse moves into the Big East portion of the schedule. Jackson also lacks the lateral mobility necessary at this stage of his developmental curve to adequately defend his area of the zone if asked to cover the wing, which could lead to easy baskets, or worse yet, unnecessary fouls, which would impair his ability to back up the somewhat foul prone Onuaku.
Ongenaet has seen limited spot duty for the Orange thus far, and has yet to settle into a comfort zone on the floor. Although somewhat slight of build at 6-8 210 pounds, the Belgian junior college transfer has the requisite athleticism and tenacity to contribute as a rebounding / defensive role player. He can't be legitimately counted upon to provide any offense outside of dunks—which might not be a bad thing for team offensive flow / continuity, if he is surrounded on the floor by four other players capable of putting the ball in the basket. Also weighing in his favor: with his junior college playing experience, Ongenaet is remarkably one of the more experienced players on the Syracuse roster now that Devendorf is unavailable.
Although hardly an ideal situation, shifting Harris to the backcourt and Greene to small forward is a viable strategy for Coach Boeheim to utilize. Even if Harris and Greene don't start at these positions, Boeheim is likely to employ this strategy to mask the team's lack of depth, and to capitalize on the versatility of Harris and Greene to play multiple positions.
Option 3: More tactical utilization of the bench
Irrespective of which of the options described above that Boeheim chooses to employ, he will have to find a way to more effectively maximize the contributions of the three scholarship players currently comprising the bench rotation. Of that group, two players [Jardine and Ongenaet] have the most to prove.
In the past, Boeheim has eschewed broad utilization of the bench in favor of playing 7 or 8 man rotations. But the loss of Devendorf coupled with the problematic depth issues in the backcourt will force Boeheim to find a way to squeeze contributions [and minutes] out of the remaining players.
There are two primary implications of not having Devendorf available: first, players like Flynn, Harris, and Greene are going to see an increased workload; although fatigue looms as a significant issue, it is likely that each of these three players will routinely be required to log 37+ minutes per game out of necessity.
Second, with 40 additional minutes to divvy up, players like Jardine, Ongenaet, and Jackson will ascend into more prominent roles than they might otherwise have played this season. Jardine and Ongenaet in particular will need to step up and make the most of this opportunity. If either player falters, both Boeheim's options and lineup flexibility will be significantly impaired.
One final team benefit associated with increased utilization of the bench: an increased dosage of regular playing time might also help to accelerate the learning curves of Jackson, Jardine, and Ongenaet—which might result in some short term execution miscues, but which will likely pay dividends down the road.
Option 4: Walk-ons?
A final strategic option for dealing with the unexpected lack of backcourt depth would be for Boeheim to seek contributions from one of the team's walk-ons. The two most likely candidates are junior Justin Thomas and sophomore Mike Williams—a star wide receiver on the Syracuse University football team. Although rare, there have been recent precedental examples in college basketball where teams have been forced to rely upon unheralded walk-ons to fill an unforeseen team need, and occasionally these players will deliver.
Thomas, a 6-1 point guard from Loyola High School in Los Angeles, appears to have a little bit more ability than most walk-ons. The author has personally observed him at practice, and was impressed at how he was able to compete against the likes of Flynn, Jardine, and Devendorf—although it is important to recognize that playing well in practice is a far cry from executing properly in pressure-packed game situations. Although playing a walk on is never an ideal situation, Thomas might have the skill and natural ability to provide stop gap minutes in the backcourt. Doing so would necessitate that he focus primarily on defense and not turning over the ball while he was on the floor.
Williams is another atypical walk-on in that he has the physical attributes to excel as a D1-caliber athlete. His exploits on the football field are impressive; he caught 60 balls for 837 yards and 10 touchdowns during his sophomore campaign. Players like Williams typically fill a niche role on quality basketball teams, using their athleticism to push the starters in practice. But given the Devendorf injury, perhaps a bigger role is in store for the athletically gifted Williams.
On the opposite side of the coin, it is important to keep in mind that Williams has not played competitive basketball since he was in high school two years ago, so it is unrealistic to expect that his skill set would be anything more than subpar. But with his size / athleticism, it is not outside the realm of possibility that Williams could see floor time as a change-of-pace defensive stopper.
Although it is unlikely that either Thomas or Williams will see any appreciable playing time, desperate times occasionally call for desperate measures. What's certain is that playing time is now available, and if Boeheim deems that either walk on might be able to help the team—even in small doses—he might situationally utilize this strategy to counteract the team's alarming lack of backcourt depth.
* * *
Unfortunately, there is no way for the Syracuse Orange to completely overcome the loss of Devendorf. Fortunately, Boeheim does have several strategic options at his disposal to help fill this sizeable void. The most likely scenario is that Boeheim will use some combination of each of the options presented above, in varying degrees determined by situational need, to help solidify the rotation and replace Devendorf's scoring contributions.
Although the loss of a player like Devendorf can be detrimental to team success, Boeheim has often turned in his best coaching performances when dealing with teams that have personnel limitations on paper. Boeheim will have to work similar magic with a suddenly depleted roster if the team is to return to the NCAA tournament in 2007-2008.